Sunday, 22 November 2015

On the Genealogy of Moderate

Another day, another Guardian columnist belts their toys out of the pram. This one will probably go down as a classic of the genre. All the arguments are there: 'people being insulting, despite my very reasonable manner', 'you don't understand, my calling people lunatics is merely an accurate description, not an insult' and, the number one in the list of 'bullshit preschool debating society rhetorical tricks': 'If wanting a world of sunshine, good will, freedom and no suffering for all makes me x, then fine: I am x'.

What particularly seems to exercise Ellen's ire is that 'moderate' is now a term of insult. This seems puzzling to me. It would suggest she either doesn't understand the concept of irony or else is being willfully obtuse.

When people, like me (who is not, incidentally, a Labour supporter), use the term 'moderate' it's used ironically and for a specific reason. The people in the Labour party who call themselves 'moderate' are not moderates; they're from the right of the party, sometimes it's outer fringes. They gave themselves the name 'moderate', not other people (the second rule is you don't automatically trust the label others give groups). Now the first rule in politics is that you don't just automatically assume that the label a group gives themselves is an accurate description. Otherwise you'd have to concede that the People's Republic of North Korea really is a people's republic, rather than a rather vile dictatorship.

The fact is the 'moderates' gave themselves the term in order to seem more centrist and reasonable than they actually are. Hence why people like myself, and the Corbynites, use the term ironically - it's mocking the right of the party, not the actual moderates in the party [1].

Ellen is, however, making a ghost of a good point; that you can't have a mass party entirely of just one wing. There always needs to be compromise and a key part of compromise is having a centre that can mediate between the two wings and help find a consensus with a 'best of both worlds' [2]. The fact that Labour doesn't have this right now, however, is not the fault of Corbyn. He has shown that he is willing to compromise in many areas (not least in making deficit reduction a policy plank) and appointed many actual moderates to his Shadow Cabinet to create a broad church. It's hardly his fault if the right of the party ruled themselves out for participation. But then they can hardly subsequently complain if they're not being included.

The trouble for the right of the party is that they don't have any ideas with which to engage or discuss. Tristram Hunt pops up in the media every now and again to insist that the moderservatives should come up with their own ideas to appeal to people, but the key continuity between all of these appearances is that he never actually proposes any ideas, never so much as suggests a vague direction for them. From an outsiders perspective it does really look like the only idea they have is to just keep throwing a temper tantrum until people give into their demands. Whatever they make think that's not an attractive, inspiring or helpful position.

The fact is that the right of the party lost and lost badly. Ellen has one hilarious passage where she states

Eventually, you just give up, driven back by a torrent of “leftier than thou” abuse, quite often from people who thrillingly “found their voice” after shelling out three quid on a whim in the leadership contest.

Note quickly how this is an article nominally talking about how awful it is being insulted that is essentially nothing but a collection of insults [3]. But it is revealing, seeing as this passage can be translated as: "Oh no! Corbyn inspired lots of people to join up to Labour and vote! What a catastrophe!"

Let's be perfectly clear here: Corbyn won fair and square across the board, but even if we just assume that it was on the £3 joinees it's worth saying that it was the same for all the candidates. There was nothing stopping Burnham, Cooper or Kendall from inspiring people to join up and vote for them, except Burnham, Cooper and Kendall themselves. The fact that they couldn't inspire people to sign up and vote for them, but Corbyn could, is the key fact that needs to be looked at in any explanation for why the moderservative and moderate candidates lost, but Corby won.

Sadly it won't be, though, as for some in the party they're far more comfortable with the belief that their own membership are idiots and nutters, and willing to call them this, than they are with idea that their way of doing things might not be the right way and that they have some self-reflection and critical thinking to do. As TheFlyingRodent aptly put it:

the party's leading lights are ever-prepared to countenance almost any kind of heresy, except for the type that suggests that the problem might be them.

Friday, 20 November 2015

'Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair'

(I had, originally, planned to write a post on the continual humour of the 'principles and power' that the moderservatives [1] keep going about, but the horrible attack in Paris has changed that. What follows, instead, is a somewhat rambling piece covering my own political journey, ISIS (henceforth Daesh) and why the West is doomed. You have been warned.)

John Quiggin, a while back, noted how although stories of conversions from left-wing positions to right-wing positions is a reasonably common affair you don't often hear of stories that track the other way. Well, you can count me as one of the bizzaros who went right to left (admittedly I'm something of an outlier, having gone from right-wing lunacy to left-wing lunacy). A big part of the story of my conversions is the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the continuing fallout from that enormous clusterfuck.

Back when that all happened it had seemed right to me. Exciting even. Having spent days in school fascinated by war, the tales of glory of World War I and II, here was one about to happen. My lifetime finally had a deciding conflict, of good and evil. Except it didn't quite turn out that way. As time past it became apparent that, whilst Al-Queada were monsters, the West wasn't exactly good. We weren't there out of a genuinely humanitarian mission, but for ulterior motives centering around gaining power in the region. The government had actively lied to us with reports about weapons of mass destruction. It's certainly telling when defenders of these actions (such as Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens) have to retreat to the 'Saddam was vile fascist, so all of you opposing are fascist sympathizers' as the strongest case they can make.

On the back of that a healthy suspicion and dislike of government emerged, starting me down the process to becoming an anarchist (there's more to it than that, but this was the kick-off for the journey).

All of which leads to Paris. But it's not just Paris, of course, it's everything that now surrounds it. Daesh, as even Tony Blair himself recognizes, was a product of Iraq. Many people, I think, just don't understand how chaotic that country was. I see a number of people citing Graham Woods article on how Daesh are Islamic, very, very Islamic as the authority. And it is an interesting article, though not in the way Woods or the people who cite it think. It's used to support the idea that Daesh are really Islamic, so all the bad stuff results from that. And on some level this is true; the Qu'ran undoubtedly does contain passages that could be read in support of what Daesh does. But then I could pick up the Bible and find passages that support what Daesh does without too much trouble. No, the interesting thing about the article is that, aside from a brief part at the beginning and end, he's actually talking about politics; namely the competition between Al'Queada and Daesh.

The fact is I don't think many people really realize just how chaotic the Bush and Blair jihad, for that is what it was, into the region made the country. When in desperate circumstances people will turn to desperate measures and to people who seem to offer them a solution and a way out. Similarly with the youths who run away; they want to believe in something, or find an identity, so go to somewhere that promises to provide, like some people undoubtedly did when they ran off to join North Korea, or the Soviet Union. Like those people they probably regret soon after, when they realize its not much fun or even close to what they imagined it to be. Undoubtedly, as well, some of them are just horrible shits who have fun doing nasty things. But characterizing everyone that way won't help. There is, after all, a reason why we're often adverse to labeling things as 'evil'. It's a dismissal, not an explanation.

Of course this no longer matters a great deal. As has been made clear, anyone who so much as attempts to suggest that poor foreign policy decisions from the West played a role in this, and that Daesh is composed of something more than just nasty shits, will be told that they are excusing their actions. This is Cameron's solution to the problem he faces. Having always been embittered by the fact that he was halted from assisting Daesh is conquering Syria by bombing Assad he's now determined that, rather than come up with a better plan, he will instead close down debate by ensuring that anyone who speaks out is shouted down as a terrorist sympathizer. For this he will find support from the Blairites in the PLP, who've never forgiven reality for crushing the reputation of St. Tony the Wonderful under it's iron heel and have subsequently refused to engage with reality ever since.

This is, of course, what Daesh wants. They want us to clamp down on people, fuel divides, be paranoid. They want us to increase the conflict. Because they know full well that in a battle of values and ideals they'll lose. The way they win is getting us to go against our own values and drop the hammer of Thor on them. Because defeating people with military might, doesn't prove that our way of life is better than what they offer (as it certainly is); all it proves is that we have bigger and nastier weapons than they do. The lesson learned is that what they need is bigger and nastier weapons. So it goes.

This is our problem. Nobody is going to stop and think that maybe, just maybe, doing what Daesh wants is a bad idea. Maybe, just maybe, we should try and understand the situation and what gave rise to it before we act. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop taking The Lord of the Rings as our blueprint for foreign policy, with the notion that if we just defeat the Dark Lord in the Dark Land order will naturally restore itself, and instead take a lesson from V for Vendetta: that you can't kill an idea with guns. Only ideas can defeat ideas. That's why the crushing of Soviet style socialism was so total.

It's sad. Depressing. Despairing. I don't know how many more unfortunate people will have to die in Europe and in the Middle East before this is over. How many more lives will be disrupted and ruined before it comes to an end. How many more wicked groups will emerge and perform barbarities on others. But to think that it all could have been avoided had someone with power just for a moment said 'hang on, let's go over this again and make sure we do actually understand this and what we're going to be doing'. Even now, nobody is saying this. We'll just keep blundering into the same errors, over and over again, our own civilisation slowly cracking and crumbling, not because of terrorists, but because of us. Because, like children, we refuse to accept that we hold any responsibility, refuse to accept that we have anything to learn.

And that's a sickening thought.

[1] A portmanteau of 'moderate' and 'conservative'; it's the best appellation I've come up with to describe the 'moderates' of the Labour party

Friday, 6 November 2015

Book Review: 'The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat' by Steven Lukes

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In The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat Steven Lukes, as the blurb says, does for political philosophy what Sophie's World did for philosophy in general. Sort of. The novel is essentially a satire of various political ideals. The title character, Professor Nicholas Caritat, an enlightenment scholar, is forced to flee his home country of Militaria, after he is arrested and put in jail. Broken out by a resistance group called the Visible Hand he is charged with travelling around the world and finding the best possible one, that is finding the country with the best system. His code-name is Pangloss, a reference to the character from Voltaire's Candide who maintained, in the face of catastrophe after catastrophe, that they lived in the best of all possible worlds (a wry reference to Leibenz).

So Caritat journeys through the world of Utilitaria, Communitaria and Libertaria, in each one finding a country dedicated to one system, and one system alone, that initially seems to work well, before the problems are exposed. It is a satirical blast at the various factions of political philosophy and Lukes is a fair satirist, in that he treats everyone with equal disdain (but for one omission, more on that in a moment). The odd one out in the group is Militaria, which seems to be based on everything Lukes dislikes (police-state, French postmodernist philosophy and Richard Rorty - a decidedly unusual mix). I suspect the actual inspiration is Hobbes' leviathan taken to an extreme conclusion. 

The strongest section of the book is undoubtedly Caritat journeying through Utilitaria. Lukes does a good job presenting a world that looks pretty good, everyone smiles, everyone is happy, there is strong welfare provisions for all, before slowly revealing that the world is not quite so perfect and that there is an insidious undercurrent to it all. In particular is the revelation that the farewell homes that Caritat is taken to by Gregory, the professor helping him, are not nice old people’s homes but euthanizing centres, that also take care of the unemployable and otherwise deficient. The people, as it were, smile out of fear that people might think they are not contributing to the overall happiness. This is a good and funny section as the baffled Caritat bounces around people arguing over who should be the ones to make calculations of utility (ordinary people with their pocket calculators - called the 'Actor' groups - or people with specialized knowledge who make the decisions for them, the 'Rule' group).
Caritat, after being kidnapped by a terrorist Bigotarian group, is rescued by a Communitarian citizen, Goodington Thwaite and is taken to Communitaria and then, from there, he flees to Liberataria. These sections are still funny and still pointed in their satire, but not quite a successful as Utilitaria. They are shorter and there is no sense that they might be the perfect world, as was the case in the utilitarian land, before it is slowly undermined as Caritat journeys through it and understands the world. They are shown to have flaws effectively from the off. Although Communitaria has respect for different communities, they are in fact ghettoised, with each community split off from one another and not interacting. The task of showing respect to ethnic and religious groups (the two major divides, there being an Ethnic lower house parliament and a Religious upper house parliament) in practice descends to the case of not showing offense to anyone, meaning that certain words, phrases and even satire are banned. Students at the university are heavily restricted in what they can do or say and interethnic and interreligious marriages are frowned upon and can lead to excommunication. After a run-in with a female professor, who accuses him of making improper advances, Caritat flees to Libertaria. Here libertarian philosophy rules, and everything is privatized, is being privatized or has a price attached to it. Caritat, for example, has to pay for three different tickets on the train, in order to pay the train maker, the train operator and the railway line operator (as well as a charge for using the platform). A thinly-veiled caricature of Margaret Thatcher closes down a psychiatric ward, giving the patients their 'freedom', to make way for a plastic surgery ward, altogether more profitable. Although Caritat occasionally commits a crime in this world he is not punished. As one character explains, the police are privatized so for most crimes it’s not worth the bother paying the fee to call them out. 

Throughout all this Caritat writes letters to the Hand member who freed him, Justin, as to his thoughts on the world, discussing it as a place he would him and his children to live whilst also looking at it from the point of view of where an unborn embryo would want to be born. Here Lukes is able to outline the trouble with each world, making it clear what the problems are with the general philosophy. Caritat also has conversations with enlightenment philosophers in his head before going to sleep, though this part of it feels tacked on and sort of disappears towards the end of the story. The satire itself is very good, although it's hard to know how well it serves as an introduction. Unless someone was familiar with the philosophies I'm not sure they would know enough of what was going on, and whether there is enough of explanation of the worlds, in order for them to get the joke. As such it feels like an in-joke from one professor to another. 

Caritat ultimately does not find the perfect world, though he holds out hope for journeying towards it. As above I noted that one major philosophy was noted by its absence: liberalism. Socialism/communism gets an airing, in Proletaria, and appears near-perfect but it's revealed to all be a dream (the satire their being pointed and obvious). At the end of the Libertaria piece Caritat sets out on foot to find Egalitaria, a supposed mythical place where all are equal. This, presumably, is the world of liberalism. If the work of satire is pointing a way to a conclusion, what Lukes seems to be suggesting is that liberalism is the best that is achievable in reality (communism would obviously be great but it's not possible, just a dream). I think there is a problem with this though. In not satirising liberalism Lukes seems to be ducking out, as if worried that his preferred system would not be able to handle the satire. I suppose it is true that liberalism is a hodgepodge of everything else, or at least it is nowadays, so one could argue that all of it is effectively satirised (multiculturalism in Communitaria, welfare and happiness seeking and social calculation in Utilitaria, negative freedom in Liberatria etc.) but its omission is none the less notable. 

Caritat never gets to Egalitaria, not knowing whether it exists, but thinks he sees some lights in the distance as he sets out on his journey, and the story ends there. After conversing with the Owl of Minerva, and seeing some activists in trees protesting against the bulldozing of trees to build a parking lot, Caritat/Lukes announces his conclusion: that trying to build a perfect world on one system is always doomed to fail, as it will not encompass enough of the human experience. Rather a piecing together of different parts of it is necessary. The activists then show that one has to keep battling, striving and fighting for what one believes in and in order to make things work. The book has some ups and downs, as mentioned it’s not quite as good after Utlitaria, and some of the explanatory sections are awkwardly placed and feel forced in. Nonetheless it does what it sets out to do well. As the end of the book symbolises, the perfect system is a myth, a dream, but it’s one that we have to keep working and journeying towards, even if it can never be met. If nothing else that is a pretty good message to take away.