Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Monday, August 31, 2009

As I read this article, I realised that it reminded me of a certain contemporary figure:

"The West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future... The sum of these fears – or their apotheosis – is the belief that civilisation is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress... But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again – a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion.

Few thinkers savaged Europe's faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called 'progress' was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: "I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity." Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics."

If the current recession can be described as a counterpart to the great depression, it's hardly surprising that writers might respond to the times in a similar fashion to what is described above, which was why I found myself wondering whether John Gray might not count as our modern Spengler. Gray is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our times; a self-styled contrarian whose arguments actually reflect an essentially mainstream view. Having had to live under a 'third way' government without any idea of political narrative and whose pragmatic approach to government resulted in little more than inconsistency, I do grow slightly weary of Gray tilting at windmills of Enlightenment political thinking. There were a couple of reasons why Gray came to mind when I read the above piece, of which this and this were the first:

"It is not surprising that Enlightenment thinking has become fashionable again: in uncertain times, people turn to the security promised by faith... liberal values are certainly at risk, but it is silly to look to the Enlightenment to safeguard them. It was a hugely complex movement, and some of its most influential thinkers were enemies of liberalism. Karl Marx allowed liberal values only a transitional role in human development, while Auguste Comte, founder of the influential positivist movement, rejected ideals of toleration and equality. Yet this was not simply a battle of ideas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-liberal strand of Enlightenment thinking gave birth to the 'scientific racism' that would be adopted by the Nazis. This ideology can be traced back to Kant's lectures on anthropology, published in 1798, in which he maintained, for instance, that Africans are inherently disposed to slavery. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution...

Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to "Enlightenment values"."

There's a great deal I agree with here, such as insistence that communism as an ideology was responsible for the crimes committed under it rather than any abuse of the political theory by its practitioners. Nonetheless, there are two particular aspects of the above that particularly irk me. Firstly, while Gray is certainly correct that communist denialists tend to exculpate their ideology by claiming the cultural revolution as an aberration, he comes quite close to some of Marx's tactics in that last paragraph, suggesting that objections to his ideas represent a covert proof of them. Popper disdained that sort of circular argument in Freud and Marx and would doubtless take a similar view of the above. Even without that, it seems a little disingenuous to cite communism as an Enlightenment project without mentioning that the ideas of pluralism and democracy that opposed it had the same pedigree; those ideas being the ones that provide the normative basis against which Gray himself can critique Kant for racism or Comte for conservatism. More pressingly, it's doubtful that the opponents that Gray is addressing here really exist in any meaningful form; believers in a Marxist or Hegelian conception of progress as a form of historical inevitability must be few and far between. His references to the Euston Manifesto ignore the problem that its signatories were a relatively small group without substantial influence; had they or like-minded individuals not existed recent historical events would have run exactly the same course. For all their references to democracy, it somewhat strains credulity to take the view that the political elites that instigated the Iraq war were especially motivated by ideals of progress rather than by religious faith or simple expediency. Certainly, if that was the case it left precious little trace on the domestic policies of either the British or American governments of that time.

While I tend to agree with Gray on the role of politics as a means of facilitating the co-existence of different groups and ideologies, the denial of any meliorist trend in politics is an essentially conservative or Hobbesian worldview. Susan Nieman's recent articles make this point rather well:

"It is this, the profound demoralisation of the left, that spurs Neiman on in Moral Clarity. ‘The left is where I come from’, she says, ‘but it has been so remiss in the last couple of decades.’ Realism and pragmatism, the watchwords of a left bereft of even a residual utopianism, have been no substitute for a moral vision, she continues. Rather, such realism merely left the way open for politicians of the right, like George W Bush, to seize the moral high ground. So while the then president was wittering on about ‘evil’, and by default ‘good’, the left was left with little more than hard-headed nihilism. As Neiman describes it, value-less and hopeless, the pragmatic left, content to unmask the workings of power, is content also to leave the world as it is. The left has come to see all idealism as tainted, and all talk of morality as an axis-of-evil-style charade. The left now appears to share the outlook of that arch-conservative Edmund Burke: ‘What kind of man would expect heaven and earth to bend to grand theories?’

As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.

In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic. Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ ... Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’"


posted by Richard 12:16 PM

Friday, February 20, 2009

Every so often I break my rule on avoiding political subjects and publish a political post. I regret to announce that this article has provoked one of them:

"It's very clear we're in the middle of a paradigm shift," he says. "We are witnessing the end of the neoliberal project - just as 30 years ago we saw the end of Keynesianism. We're in a shift of comparable proportions. The interesting question is what comes next." Blond argues that what ought to come next is something he calls communitarian civic conservatism - or "Red Toryism". "The current political consensus", he writes, is "left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in econo­mics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be." However, Blond thinks that Cameron and the Tories are beginning to see their way beyond the impasse. They are right, he says: we do live in a broken society. But it wasn't only the dead hand of the welfare state that caused the bonds and attachments of civil association (the "old mutualism of the working class" and so on) to give way; late-modern capitalism's "perennial gale of creative destruction" (to use Joseph Schumpeter's phrase) has played its part, too....

A central feature of his Toryism is a critique of "liberalism", a term capacious enough in his hands to apply to the cultural libertarianism of the 1960s as well as to the great philosophers of the liberal tradition, such as Locke or Mill. According to Blond, what the post-1968 "politics of desire" shares with those liberal titans, and in fact also with the Thatcherite or neoliberal model of rational economic behaviour, is a certain idea of individual human beings.

In the liberal view, at least as Blond characterises it, the defence of individual freedom, in its most extreme form, demands of each man that "he refuse the dictates of any other". In other words, liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the "broken society" overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill. This is contentious, to say the least. Several commentators, notably the Oxford political theorist Stuart White, have criticised the history of liberalism that underpins the Red Tory thesis. White points out that the fundamental principles of justice articulated in the work of a liberal philosopher such as John Rawls amount to a vision of the "common good", and that for Rawls those principles impose just the sort of civic obligations on citizens that Blond regards as desirable, but to which he thinks liberals are fatally indifferent."

While I suppose it's interesting that conservatives have finally noticed that free market economics tends to dissolve traditional social structures thirty years after the rest of us did, I did find myself chortling at the idea of the current political consensus being 'left liberal on culture.' It seems significantly more likely the precise opposite has been true; social authoritarianism and economic liberalism seems a good description of the current administration. Civil liberties have invariably been construed as stumbling blocks to other policy goals, as with recent news stories relating to the curtailing of freedom of speech in the interests of 'community cohesion.' More specifically, much social policy has been quite explicitly communitarian (Amitai Etzioni surely counts as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the last decade), which accounts for the increasingly Benthamite and coercive character it has taken on. Government policy has been used increasingly as an almost Pavlovian means of determining means of enforcing desired forms of behaviour. Even if economic policy now seems inevitable to swing sharply away from laissez faire economic and back to a planned model, on social policy it looks as if the prospects ahead are essentially for more of the same of what we've had for the last ten years. I'm not looking forward to it much.

Update: a related piece from Richard Posner:

"The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement... My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising... And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives' bête noire."


posted by Richard 8:59 PM

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Rather predictably, this article has recently been highlighted on more than one occasion:

"The current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls "the real Great Depression." ... The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.

But the economic fundamentals were shaky. Wheat exporters from Russia and Central Europe faced a new international competitor who drastically undersold them. The 19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisted of produce from farmers in the American Midwest. They used grain elevators, conveyer belts, and massive steam ships to export trainloads of wheat to abroad. Britain, the biggest importer of wheat, shifted to the cheap stuff quite suddenly around 1871. By 1872 kerosene and manufactured food were rocketing out of America's heartland, undermining rapeseed, flour, and beef prices. The crash came in Central Europe in May 1873, as it became clear that the region's assumptions about continual economic growth were too optimistic. Europeans faced what they came to call the American Commercial Invasion. A new industrial superpower had arrived, one whose low costs threatened European trade and a European way of life.

As continental banks tumbled, British banks held back their capital, unsure of which institutions were most involved in the mortgage crisis. The cost to borrow money from another bank — the interbank lending rate — reached impossibly high rates... In the end, the Panic of 1873 demonstrated that the center of gravity for the world's credit had shifted west — from Central Europe toward the United States. The current panic suggests a further shift — from the United States to China and India."

I've long felt that contemporary society bears a marked resemblance to its Victorian precursor, with marked social inequality being matched by the volatility and instability of free markets. As the conservative project to roll back the twentieth century progressed, the inevitable result was that many of the safeguards introduced to prevent depressions like 1873 and 1929 were also removed. The current conditions are essentially identical to those Marx and Engels had hoped would destroy capitalism in the previous recession of 1857 when Dickens had based the character of Merdle in Little Dorrit on railway speculator and Minister John Sadleir, who embezzled and then bankrupted the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank before killing himself. Given that the current crisis poses substantial questions around the Anglo-American economic model of the last twenty to thirty years, it will be interesting to observe whether current events produce novels like Our Mutual Friend or The Way We Live Now, as this article debates:

"In Britain, there is a long-standing aversion to writing about business. More than a century ago, Henry James decreed that novels should focus on private life and the emotions, not politics and business; most writers since have taken him at his word... Perhaps because US writers are generally more ambitious, and also because US culture is less sniffy about moneymaking, modern American novelists seem at home in the worlds of work and money in a way that few British ones do. Think of [Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities] Saul Bellow's comi-tragic portrait of errant market speculation in Seize the Day, or Philip Roth's account of factory life in American Pastoral. Or think of David Foster Wallace's sinister vision of a corporatised America of the future in his 1996 epic Infinite Jest.

We should not be surprised, then, that it is an American writer who has been most prescient about the current financial upheavals. In his slim 2003 novel Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo tracked the life of an enormously wealthy currency trader on a day of global financial meltdown. It is by no means DeLillo's best work, but many things about it that now seem prophetic – the way, for instance, he captures the trader's overweening ambition and arrogance, and how he evokes the sense of a system that no one fully understands spinning rapidly out of control."

I do tend to recall Milan Kundera's observation that the re-establishment of the middle class in the Czech Republic following the collapse of the Soviet bloc was a subject worthy of Balzac at a time when novels of that kind had ceased to be possible. Realism in its conventional sense seemed to assume a more homogeneous society that could be more easily conceived of a single entity, which applies rather poorly to contemporary society (although Hollinghurst's documenting of the 1987 stock market crash in The Line of Beauty does rather spring to mind as a counter example). In practice, it may not be that easy to roll back the twentieth century and all of the literary innovations that went with it. Of course, all of this assumes that we don't end up with nostalgic works of escapism like Brideshead Revisited ("it was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster — the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past"), Love in a Cold Climate and Lord of the Rings instead.

Update: a closely related follow-up piece from Tristram Hunt:

"To wander through modern Los Angeles is to get a keen idea of Rome in 400AD, Venice at the end of its medieval glory or post-war London. LA is a city redolent of empire and it is visibly in collapse. It is not just the choking smog, violent ghettos or armies of homeless, but a more fin de siècle sense that its time has passed. One can imagine, in 100 years, the Pacific waves lapping at the stones of Santa Monica, the sand blowing through the skyscrapers and the great film studios serving as a 20th-century Colosseum.

Last week's report from the National Intelligence Council only served to confirm the fear that the age of America is drawing to a close, with the Iraq invasion standing as the final act of imperial hubris. As the Pentagon securocrats rightly predict, the emerging economies of the Bric nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - are starting to flex their political and military muscles. The dollar's financial dominance is crumbling. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria's nascent film industry) are beginning to challenge the cultural prowess of Hollywood. In the coming decades, globalisation will no longer stand as a byword for Americanisation. quot;

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posted by Richard 7:51 PM

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rather unsurprisingly, I have to admit to being somewhat unimpressed by this defence of Slavoj Zizek:

"Philosopher Simon Critchley contends that Zizek is "whistling in the dark" and that his proposals for action amount to nothing more than "vague apocalyptic allusions to violence". Even more to the point is Oliver Marchart’s claim that Zizek advocates "a purely abyssal and decisional act" that Lenin (the very figure whom Zizek urges us to "repeat") would have dismissed as mere "adventurism". In other words, the charge is, once again, that Zizek’s Act is just an act. This brings us to our primary question. All games aside, what is, in fact, the nature of Zizek’s "Act"?

Zizek’s analysis might well give some careless readers the impression that it is groundless, purely spontaneous, and might lead nowhere in particular. For example, he says that the revolution he envisions "ne s'authorise que d'elle meme"" it is its own justification. He also explains that revolutionary action is "exactly like making a leap of faith". But if that's what it is "exactly" like, perhaps one might reasonably conclude that it's no more than a baseless, irrational exercise of will....

Zizek no doubt intends to shock the reader when he praises Robespierre's defense of terror and calls for "repeating Lenin". However, that's not the main point. It's not just a pose; it's a position. He explains that he wants to "repeat Lenin" in a Kierkegaardian sense: "to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation". This is the impulse to focus resolutely on the conditions that authorise the Act. Moreover, the legacy of Robespierre that he affirms is also quite specific: his commitment to the necessity of "large-scale collective decisions". So the Act isn’t about the guillotines or the Cheka, but about the ability to envision the possibility of qualitative changes in society and to act on this vision.

ZiZek holds that "there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision". By "crucial moments" he doesn’t mean only a 1789 or a 1917. There are no "innocent bystanders" now, as various genocides and ecocides are being carried out in our name, and the products of our labour are being used to destroy, exploit, oppress and murder. Despite being on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, Zizek has something here in common with a thinker like utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. How, asks Singer, can I justify squandering wealth on luxuries while others are starving, and I could save many lives with at most a small sacrifice? He concludes that the reallocation of this wealth (and indeed much more) is not "charity" but rather strict justice. Zizek makes a similar point. I am not innocent when I allow preventable atrocities to go on and merely pretend that I'm incapable of acting. This is the ethical grounding of the Act.

Zizek discusses several possible paths for action. At times he stresses the course of indirect action rather heavily. He laments the fact that the options that now seem realistic are those that allow everything to remain fundamentally the same. This is exemplified by the obsession with recycling and Green consumerism, in which gestures that cannot possibly have a significant effect on the underlying problems (global climate change, mass extinction, ecocide) replace the will to act decisively. Other examples include the concern with politically correct language or endless apologies offered to victimised groups. These gestures act as substitutes for concerted action against structural racism or actual genocide. Zizek rejects such illusory forms of action in favour of opposition to global capital through challenging "the hegemonic ideological coordinates". Does this mean that Zizek is willing to settle for "the terrorism of pure theory"? Not at all.

Elsewhere, Zizek is quite specific about what the Act might mean in terms of large-scale political action. He cites what Badiou sees as the four moments of revolutionary justice: first, voluntarism, or the faith in one’s ability to act; second, willingness to use "terror" to "crush the enemy of the people"; third, the will to take "egalitarian justice" as far and as quickly as necessary; and, finally, trust in the people. He explains how a response to the ecological crisis might embody these elements. It would imply a willingness to impose uniform standards everywhere in order to solve the problem; a readiness to inflict "ruthless punishment" on those who resist; a commitment to immediate, large-scale, drastic changes; and faith that "the large majority" will ultimately endorse this course of action.

ZiZek doesn’t say what "ruthless punishment" might mean, but presumably it would include heavy fines and imprisonment. It might also require strong pressure or even coercive means against regimes that resist. Some might say this is harsh. ZiZek’s response is that we should consider the alternative to acting. Decades may pass while debate continues over reaching standards like those of the Kyoto Protocols, which are entirely inadequate to solve the problem. Rising sea levels may inundate lands where hundreds of millions of people now live, and unprecedented social chaos may result. Ruin of agricultural lands may inflict famine on hundreds of millions, if not billions. Which produces the greatest terror, action or inaction?..

Zizek looks to a future beyond the fantasy. He invokes the concept of the passage á l’acte, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis signifies an exit from the fantasy scene. It also means leaving the symbolic, the realm of the Big Other, the realm of domination. It means a confrontation with the real. This could be the real of our own lives or the real of our collective history. Critics who see mere adventurism in Zizek ignore this dimension " his call for the substitution of the "passion for the real" for the passion mobilised and channelled by fantasy and fetishism. The authentic Act cannot be for Zizek a mere revolutionary moment, a new fantasy scene. He endorses what Badiou calls "fidelity to the event", the resolution to create "a new lasting order". The ethical imperative embodied in ZiZek’s concept of the Act requires that that the subjective spirit of revolt find its fulfilment in an objective order of history.

I'm not really sure why the author of this piece wishes to presume that Zizek is simply trying to shock when citing Robespierre and Lenin, that Zizek simply means fines rather than gulags and guillotines when all the evidence seems to point to the contrary; on the whole Zizek has rather more in common with De Sade than with Marx. His Lacanianism demands a concentration on the act and the passion of the real, but the nature of the real seems essentially arbitrary. This shouldn't be surprising; Lacan and Marx are hardly obvious bedfellows. This is why Zizek can write of having more in common with religious conservatives than with the conventional left, because the dimension of power is ultimately of as much importance for him as any programme of political action. It's difficult to see why the sorts of Acts committed by Mussolini or Hitler in the name of an abstract concept of the people would not do as well as those committed by Lenin and Stalin in the name of equally nebulous abstractions. Even if one did conclude it to be a sound practice to dismiss individual rights in favour of collective coercion, and there are few precedents to suggest that it would be, the question of what that action would lead to is largely absent from Zizek. In short, he is effectively concerned with means and not ends. Whereas one knows what Singer's recommendations for animal rights or social equality consist of, Zizek's revolution is an end in its own right.

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posted by Richard 11:36 AM

Sunday, October 07, 2007

This article touches on so many of the themes I've commented on here, it's difficult not to want to quote more of it:

"In that case, one could look at the remnants of the avant-garde project that litter the former USSR as the detritus left by the Martians: the incomprehensible, incommensurable ruins of a strictly temporary visitation by creatures not like ourselves. The Strugatsky Brothers' tremendous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic depicts just such a visitation. A city that has been 'visited' is left with the Zone in the area where the visitation took place: a fenced-off, contaminated and ruined area, marked by scatterings of bizarre and technologically fantastic objects left by the alien visitors. The Zone is a dangerous, melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. Within it, however, is quite literally the answer to all human wishes, something which in the last instance holds the promise of eternal happiness for all humanity.

Filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker, the Zone is visualised as a Chernobyl-like scarred, postindustrial landscape of ruins, waste, rubbish, of the remnants of industrial civilisation corroded, dilapidated and rapidly being reclaimed by nature . Tarkovsky's version of the Zone has gradually, over the last thirty years, become the foundation of an entire aesthetic. If Modernity, or Modernism, is our Antiquity, then its ruins have become every bit as fascinating, poignant and morbid as those of the Greeks or Romans were to the 18th century. Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR and a few locations in Estonia, yet practically every industrial or post-industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it. Such an area would be, for instance, the remnants of industrial districts of East London. Beckton, Woolwich, Stratford, outposts marked by the cyclopean remains of silos, gasometers, factories. These are the places that inspired the Modernists of the 1920s: every manifesto from Le Corbusier's Vers d'une Architecture to Moisei Ginzburg's Constructivist response Style and Epoch had their lovingly photographed silos and power stations. Appropriately, also in the Zone can be found the bastard children of the Modernists, the scatterings of overambitious social housing, with their crumbling highrises and streets in the sky. These are remnants of something as alien and incomprehensible to the seamless mallscape of 21st century Capital, or the heritage Disneyland of European Urbanism, as Shklovsky’s Futurist Martians were to their contemporaries: only here without any of the insurrectionary promise of a new world, merely the ruins of a defunct future...

So we have here, via these two models of alien visitations in the imagination of Russian Modernists, whether of the 20s or the 70s, two competing models of Modernity. On the one hand, the advancing, gleaming, ruthless aesthetics of Futurism, particularly, for our purposes here its mutation into the more humanist, politicised Constructivism. On the other, an aesthetic of disintegration, of the aforementioned Futurist world's gradual descent into an overgrown, poisoned wasteland....

In contemplating these images however, one is reminded of the interesting element to Albert Speer's otherwise utterly banal 'Theory of Ruin Value'. Not the bit about the impressiveness of ancient ruins, and the need to leave similarly imposing remains. Rather, the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-drive architecture, where posterity's opinion is internalised to such a ludicrous degree that, in a sense, the corpse has been designed before the living body...

Today, the aesthetics of everyday life are provided by ultra-conservative developers (the likes of Barratt Homes in the UK) and the aesthetics of Art or Commerce by the avant-garde of a few decades ago (from Foster to Koolhaas). The remarkable thing about Constructivism, something that can still be seen as a shadow in Pare's work, is that the everyday was so frequently the area for experiment. A much-used Russian term here was Byt, translated usually as Everyday Life, specifically in its most habituated, domestic sense. So most of the projects here were applications of the aesthetic that would be branded 'alien' by the Stalinists to the most basic architectural elements of society. That is, housing, public leisure facilities, schools. Equally frequently, there were administrative or industrial buildings. Although even these were often in the poorer quarters of cities and towns, the growing nomenklatura’s presence is unavoidable.

Superficially, these buildings might seem similar to corresponding Western models: social housing, working men's clubs and so forth. So it's the differences that are especially key here. This was frequently a teleological architecture, one could even say a Pavlovian one: particular social affects were intended to be produced. Although a socialist state power of some sort was claimed (rightly or wrongly) to be in place by 1922, its leaders were well aware that old habitus died hard: religion, patriarchy and 'petty bourgeois' attitudes still pervaded. In 1924, Leon Trotsky, a few years before his expulsion, published a book called Problems of Everyday Life. Here there was a cautious endorsement of 'Byt reform'--the experiments in living being carried out at the time by communes and co-operatives--and the particular material forms that might house them. 'Public laundries, public restaurants, public workshops' would take the place of all that used to take place in the kitchen, thus abolishing 'household slavery'. A poster from around this time shows a dingy, cramped kitchen being opened up to a glittering, glassy new world of futuristic structures and open space, and this was what was, tentatively, being constructed at the time. "

I've written before about ruin value, noting that the interest of modernist architecture here lies precisely with its status as a forgotten future (particularly given that many of the architectural projects referenced above where essentially futile attempts to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was not being left behind economically by the United States by seeking to rival the likes of the Empire State Building), but this is something I'm nonetheless much less able to relate to than the author of this piece. I don't especially feel any nostalgia for the failure of either communism or architectural modernism, both seeming to be essentially utopian projects that sought to reform humanity by deforming it. To my mind, Tatlin's tower can comfortably remain in the same category as Speer's New Berlin. By coincidence, I've also recently comes across this article, which serves as an interesting contrast (albeit one that is often rather too conservative for my taste):

"Much of the left was and remains "anti-anti-communist." This is what accounts for what Ferdinand Mount calls the "asymmetry of indulgence" afforded communistic and fascistic state-sponsored murders... On walking into the first room of the exhibition, the visitor was greeted by a sign asking "What is Modernism?" and answering as follows: "The Iconic Objects in this room...were created by practitioners who believed that their art could help bring about Utopia within their lifetimes." This belief was expressed in all kinds of ways, as the exhibition shows, from calisthenics to kitchen design, from the cantilevered chair of Mies van der Rohe to the colorful rectilinear paintings of Piet Mondrian...

Beginning with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists before the First World War and continuing with Die Stijl and Bauhaus after it, there was always a strong element of political radicalism associated with Modernism. Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s when it was in its heyday, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and others envisaged a sweeping architectural revolution—more or less explicitly as a complement to the political ones that were projected or actual at the time—to provide for simple, efficient, undecorated "workers' housing" and do away with luxury, sentimentality, ornament and other "bourgeois" values. Tradition had to be cleared away along with traditional images and traditional architectures in order for ideological and architectural engineers to build a new civilization from the ground up.... As the title of Nathan Glazer's new book puts it, Modernism has gone From a Cause to a Style. The rags of a failed utopianism still hang from it long after it became routine for banks to commission for their headquarters Mies-style glass towers or for reproductions of Picasso and Matisse—the originals, are of course, only available to the very richest—to decorate the "living rooms" of the haute bourgeoisie. We may not be conscious utopians ourselves anymore, but we still believe that those who are (or were) are entitled to full credit and even a certain veneration merely for the goodness and the nobility of their intentions."

I find myself much more drawn to two quotations offered late on in the piece, of Stoppad's descriptions of Herzen; "He came to the conclusion that there was no abstract formula at work on our history. There was nothing going on that was inevitable. The big bond between me and him is that he found an appalling arrogance in the way that people might construct an abstract narrative of our society and subordinate the individual life to it. He found that morally repellent." Although it was Schoenberg who formed the central protagonist in Mann's depiction of the culpability of German romanticism in Nazism (incidentally, this piece has an interesting observation on how Schoenberg's descriptions of tonality decaying through "inbreeding and incest" mirror those of racist politicians of the time), I do wonder if an equivalent narrative might not assign similar roles to figures like Corbusier.

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posted by Richard 9:55 AM

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Slavoj Zizek reviews The Lives of Others:

"To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: "Good Bye Hitler" instead of "Good Bye Lenin." Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism? The quasi-metaphysical epiphany toward the film’s end (when the mother, on her first walk outside the apartment, finds herself face-to-face with a Lenin-statue carried by the helicopter, whose outstretched hand seems to address her directly) is thus to be taken more seriously than it may appear.

This, of course, in no way implies that Good Bye Lenin! is without faults. The weak point of the film is that (like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful) it sustains the ethics of protecting one’s illusions: It manipulates the threat of a new heart attack as the means to blackmail us into accepting the need to protect one’s fantasy as the highest ethical duty. Isn’t the film then unexpectedly endorsing Leo Strauss’ thesis on the need for a “noble lie”? So is it really that the emancipatory potential of Communism is only a “noble lie” to be staged and sustained for the naive believers, a lie which effectively only masks the ruthless violence of the Communist rule? Here mother is the “subject supposed to believe”: through her, others sustain their belief. (The irony is that it is usually the mother who is supposed to be the caretaker, protecting children from cruel reality.)

The lesson of all this? We are still waiting for a film that would provide a complete description of the GDR terror, a film that would do for the Stasi what Varlam Shalamov, in his unsurpassed Kolyma Tales, did for the Gulag.

I find myself in agreement with Zizek that The Lives of Others is a far from complete description of the Stasi, an organisation that simply never witnessed one of its agent showing mercy towards a subject in the way the film depicts. This article presents a rather more acute political criticism of the film:

"No Stasi man ever tried to save his victims, because it was impossible. (We'd know if one had, because the files are so comprehensive.) Unlike Wiesler, who runs a nearly solo surveillance operation and can withhold the results from his superior, totalitarian systems rely on thoroughgoing internal surveillance (terror) and division of tasks. The film doesn't accurately portray the way totalitarian systems work, because it needs to leave room for its hero to act humanely (something such systems are designed to prevent)... To understand why a Wiesler could not have existed is to understand the "total" nature of totalitarianism. Knabe talks of the fierce surveillance within the Stasi of its own men, of how in a case like Dreyman's there might have been a dozen agents: everything was checked and cross-checked. This separation of duties gives some former Stasi men the impression that they were just "obeying orders", or were "small cogs" in the machine, and that therefore they couldn't have done much harm. Perhaps this is partly why repentance like Wiesler's is rare. To my mind, hoping for salvation to come from the change of heart of a perpetrator is to misunderstand the nature of bureaucratised evil - the way great harms can be inflicted in minute, "legal" steps, or in decisions by committees carried out by people "just doing their jobs"."

With this, however, the agreements ends. The illusions perpetuated in Goodbye Lenin! are effectively a form of propaganda, something that the film is explicitly critiquing and which ensures that the ostalgie it depicts is decidedly ambivalent. But what I find most striking is Zizek's insistence on the 'emancipatory potential' of communism alongside his admission that The Lives of Others is far from adequate in depicting the nature of state surveillance in East Germany. It is, for instance, rather difficult to see Stalin displacing Lenin in the title and helicopter scene, although Lenin was far from having different methods (a fact I rather thought Zizek had endorsed). More generally, surely it was the utopian 'emancipatory potential' of both fascism and communism that lay at the root of their danger, both being essentially religious rather than political phenomena.
Christianity asserts spirit as the ground of being for the presence of matter, while communism asserts materialiasm as the ground of becoming for the emerging mind. The invisible God promising the invisible Heavens was faced with the visible God promising the visible Earth. Dialectical idealism was opposed by dialectical materialism, and contemplation by action. Both are absolutist, both are deterministic, and both accept deductive logic as valid and the principle of noncontradiction as sound. The relationship between communism and christianity was essentially that of thesis and anti-thesis. As Koestler put it "the two poles of the Communist's faith are longing for Utopia and rejection of the existing social order."

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posted by Richard 11:04 AM

Saturday, March 24, 2007

An interesting discussion of the controversy around the Austrian author Peter Handke's views on Serbian nationalism:

"Like Heidegger, Handke now claimed he wanted to awaken in his readers a new sense of "the mystery of being." To that end, he had his fictional creations travel to places in which new perceptions of exterior reality would enable them to surpass rational thinking and engage directly with objects themselves rather than the preconceived notions of them induced by language. His characters are finally able to achieve moments of happiness, but only in an irrational way as they sink below the threshold of mind and participate, if only for a moment, in the unfolding processes of life.

For the first two decades of his writing career, Slovenia, in Handke’s mind, symbolized everything Austria wasn’t: it, together with the rest of Yugoslavia, stood outside the Western free-market system in something of a preconsumerist idyll. Moreover, it was, in his view, a self-enclosed world of peasants and artisans who were "at one" with the land, where language counted for little and what it did count for was still "pure" and retained an exact fit to the surrounding reality.

But all this changed in 1991 when Slovenia, followed in rapid succession by Croatia and Bosnia, gained independence and sought greater ties to the European Union. Handke was outraged over the destruction of his utopian fantasy, which he wrote about in a book called, appropriately enough, The Dreamer’s Farewell (1991). Predictably, he laid the blame for his disappointment on those countries, including his native Austria, that had supported independence for the former Yugoslavian provinces.

As war intensified in the Balkans in the 1990s, Handke devoted more and more of his energies to speaking out about the conflict. He employed arguments similar to those being made on the far left that what was occurring in Yugoslavia was, in Handke’s words, "a civil war, unleashed or at least co-produced by European bad faith" and that Europe and the United States had decided to carve up Yugoslavia to fill the coffers of their bankers and industrialists.

As an argument, this runs into problems by conflating the question of the political with the aesthetics. Having already dismissed Handke's politics, the author feels that he must reinforce his case by doing the same with his aesthetics, consequently arguing that Handke's dwelling on the mechnical nature of the minutiae of existence represents a betrayal of writing. This seems a rather unjustified addition of the polemic but, nonetheless, the idea that certain apparently apolitical aesthetics so entail political commitments is an interesting one. The most famous exposition of this argument is Susan Sontag's Fascinating Fascism:

"Riefenstahl's particular slant is revealed by her choice of this tribe and not another: a people she describes as acutely artistic (everyone owns a lyre) and beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, "have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe") ; endowed as they are with "a much stronger sense of spiritual and religious relations than of worldly and material matters," their principal activity, she insists, is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting in a pure harmony with their environment, untouched by "civilization."

All four of Riefenstahl's commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she starred and her own The Blue Light. The Alpine fictions are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; they are about the vertigo before power, symbolized by the majesty and beauty of mountains. The Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which everyday reality is transcended through ecstatic self-control and submission; they are about the triumph of power. And The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives whom Riefenstahl calls "her adopted people," is the third in her triptych of fascist visuals...

Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl's portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit." The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels's cry: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit." And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having "typically Jewish traits of character": putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling. In the transformed thematics of latter-day fascism, the Jews no longer play the role of defiler. It is "civilization" itself.

Sontag suggests that aestheticised aspects of fascism appear in contexts where it may have been deliberate (the movels of Mishima) or inadvertent (the films of Kenneth Anger). The aesthetic carries a set of political connotations that exist beyond its own artistic conception. The most obvious example of this is how Nazism and romanticism are often considered as related concepts in their rejection of bourgeois society in favour of the heroic self and idealised visions of the past. For instance, Heidegger's ideas of authentic existence and of being was not only present in but also able to transcend its situation, are key romantic concepts but they also relate to his acceptance of the Fuhrer principle, of hero-worship ("that unyielding spiritual mission that forces the fate of the German people to bear the stamp of its history").

Also central to the joining of Nazism and romanticism was the distinction of gemeinschaft and geschellschaft. Volk was a German romantic response to French Enlightenment ideas of social contract, a characteristically romantic response to the problem of the separation, or alienation, that was seen as typical of life in modern society. Lawrence's 'savage pilgrimage' was opposed to what he saw as a dehumanised and mechanised society in which "the machine works him, instead of he the machine." In Women in Love Gerald and Loerke wish to create "an activity of pure order, pure mechanical repetition." In The Plumed Serpent, the cult of the machines had transformed the Americans into a "mechanical cog-wheel people," who robotically performed their functions within "that horrible machine of the world" Similarly, Celine's Voyage to the Edge of the Night partly takes place in a factory characterised by the "earsplitting continuity of the thousands and thousands of instruments that commanded the men... we ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts... everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts. "

In some cases, such as Lawrence and Nietzsche, notions of volk and imperialism were largely repugnant to them, effacing some of the more authoritarian elements of their work. In others such, as Wagner, Pound and Heidegger, it is considerably more difficult to effect any rehabilitation. One such case is the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun a supporter of the Quisling government who openly wrote in support of Hitler. For instance, in Pan Hamsun contrasts the authentic self of his soldier protagonist, who lives alone in the woods with his dog as his sole companion, to the bourgeois Edvarda, who lives in society and marries a Swedish count. As with Lawrence, Hamsun's novels typically depict outcasts from an alienated bourgeois society; "I loathe your whole taxpayer's existence... I feel indignation rising within me like a rushing mighty win of the Holy Spirit." Heidegger sought from Nazism "a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety... Only a spiritual world gives the people the assurance of greatness.. and the spiritual world of a the power that most deeply preserves the people's strengths, which are tied to earth and blood." Similarly, Nagel "couldn't understand what human beings would gain by having life stripped of all symbols, of all poetry," often speaking in parables, the fairy tales of a pagan christ. Influenced by Nietzsche, Hamsun's characters do not believe in god but continue to believe in a religious life, the same ambivalent relationship to religion that Nazism had.

But equally, his characters are deluded fantasists, inventors of falsehoods and contradictions. As one character says in Nagel in Mysteries; "I cannot figure out why you are turning yourself inside out for me." He himself speaks of his sudden jumps of thought, being a thinker who has never learned to think; "I admit I am a living contradiction." The vial of prussic acid he carries and his killing of a dog point to a dark aspect to his fantasies, parodying and mocking christ in the same way Nietzsche did. The element of romantic heroism is absent. Perhaps rather predictably, Hamsun's novels cannot easily be diminished to a set of unambiguous propositions. It seems flawed to analyse Hamsun's works for traces of Nazism when it was romantic culture, of which Hamsun was only one example, that acted to create Nazism. Celine's depiction of 'machine culture' is mild in comparison to that of Huxley. Lawrence's mythology of nature and eros owes a great deal to Hardy, Blake and Freud and is paralleled to a large extent in writers like Forster. Conversely, fascists like Marinetti openly embraced the machine and rejected nature. If the enlightenment is not viewed as being irredeemably tainted through its association with communism, it seems unfair not to grant romanticism the same benefit of the doubt. In practice, romanticism often acted as a necessary corrective to the extremes of other ideologies, a fact that should efface its own extremes a little.

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posted by Richard 9:16 PM

Sunday, June 11, 2006

I have to admit that the subject of utopian communities holds more than a certain morbid fascination for me. Coleridge and Southey once proposed to build such a community to further the ideals of the French Revoluton without drawback of the Terror. Entitled pantisocracy it was to be founded in the New World, by the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, on land bought by the radical Joseph Priestley after his exile from England. Fourier had devised a similar concept, a self-contained community called a phalanstery (as at Brook Farm), several of which were founded in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, figures like Ruskin experimented with such communities (in his case, the ill-fated Guild of St George set out to create agrarian communities were the dignity of labour need not resort ot mechanised techniques), but the advent of such social experiments as communism and fascism has tended, with the exception of some projects like Christiania or the Kibbutzim, to reduce the enthusiasm for such projects. So I was interested to come across this:

"From this flowered Evans’s belief that humans were no longer living in the kind of society that suited them: “We evolved over three million years — we spent 99.9 per cent of that time living in small hunter-gatherer bands with minimal technology, such as bows and arrows.”

Then, 10,000 years ago, came farming and an explosion in food production, which could suddenly sustain huge populations and fuel progress: “The dominant view is that our current lifestyle is indisputably better,” Evans says. “I’m beginning to think it’s not indisputable — in fact, our modern lifestyle is something we’re extremely badly adapted to. No society has more leisure time than the hunter gatherers. On average they spend two hours a day gathering, preparing and cooking food. The rest of the time they sleep a lot, play a lot, make love, and tell stories. The concept of working to survive is unknown, as is the concept of hierarchy.” Primitive cultures, he says, report lower rates of mental disorders, and have more control over their lives.

Evans compares human beings to animals that have been taken out of their natural habitat and reared in captivity. The result is high rates of stress, disease and psychological suffering. “I think of this (the Utopia experiment) as gradually ‘re-wilding’ people,” he laughs. "

I should confess immediately that my morbid interest in such experiments notwithstanding, my instinctive reaction is to presume that this experiment will go the same way as phlansteries and pantisocracies (particularly since much of this experiment in primitivism appears to use solar power, the Internet, modern medicine and sundry other accoutrements of a technological civilisation). The obvious criticism remains that primitivism leads to an existence that can be best described as 'nasty, brutish and short.' Nor does it help that Evans himself compares his project to Alex Garland's The Beach, which rather does the work of satirising his project without any external assistance being required. Finally, the desire to remove modern technological and social progress can easily be viewed as conservative rather than counter-cultural, in the same spirit as my previous post on Luddism and futurism.

Nonetheless, it does seem to me that such experiments can be important and worthwhile (particularly since more modest experiments like New Lanark and Port Sunlight arguably did achieve much in reshaping society for the better). I might not have high expectations for such projects and am certainly not going to take part but I'm nonetheless rather glad that they still exist. Finally, having noted this story through Butterflies and Wheels, I have to make a final admission, namely that this does confirm many of my prejudices regarding certain strains of conservative thought within evolutionary psychology. Certainly, the above dislike for all technoligical and social experimentation doesn't strike me as being all that far removed from Steven Pinker's abhorrence for artistic experimentation.

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posted by Richard 12:47 PM

Friday, December 09, 2005

I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable about this interview with John Searle:

"Like every other undergraduate of my generation, when Hayek's book came out, I found it was treated as an object of ridicule. I remember a professor of economics saying, "Hayek is the last of the Mohicans of the classical economists. He's the last one left, holding this absurd view that's long since been refuted."...

If we're going to talk about the failure of socialism, an awful lot of the failures had to do with exactly what Hayek predicted. It would be interesting for somebody to analyze in a more scholarly vein to what extent he was right: that there wasn't any halfway point of democratic socialism, that it would naturally collapse into various forms of oppression, that however well-intentioned the setting up of the socialist bureaucracy was, it would be bound to have calamitous effects."

To some extent, the idea that a decentralised market system (i.e. a free market) is more adaptable and efficient than a centralised and planned economy seems self-evident now (though it hardly seems difficult to understand why it might have been thought that a centralised model would succeed through eliminating duplication and waste; it applies in a context where standardisation can easily be applied but not as ready to one where people have differing needs and requirements). Hayek took the view that since knowledge is limited and reason constrained, complex societies are not subject to prediction. In particular, attempting to predict social behaviour in advance of the individual decision is invalid since the the predicting agency may skew the results. This formed the backbone of Hayek's critique of communism. As a consequence of this epistemology Hayek defended conservatism, as against rationalistic reformers, and free markets against command economics.

The problems is that I'm far from persuaded that the current 'End of History' triumphalism isn't as shortsighted as the description of Hayek as the last of the Mohicans. Compare and contrast Searle's account with this snippet from a recent interview with John Gray:

"He read Hayek in the late 1960s, and understood his essential point to be that markets in some sense know more than any of the people who operate in them. It followed that state planning, and social engineering based on rational discussion were always likely to go wrong. This much was common among Thatcherites in the 70s, but unlike most Thatcherites, he saw that ripping down communities to make way for a market was itself a form of social engineering, though an often anti-social one... "In the United States free markets have contributed to social breakdown on a scale unknown in any other developed country. Families are weaker in America than in any other country. At the same time, social order has been propped up by a policy of mass incarceration. No other advanced industrial country, aside from post-communist Russia, uses imprisonment as a means of social control on the scale of the United States. Free markets, the desolation of families and communities and the use of the sanctions of criminal law as a last recourse against social collapse go in tandem."

As matters currently stand, free market economics in Western countries persistently has the effect of creating substantial inequalities (where rising standards of living at the bottom end of the income spectrum have simply not compensated for the extent to which these have been dwarfed by increases at the upper end) and highly restricted social mobility. The European welfare states that are currently been dismantled were created in the first place (often by social conservatives) as a means of addressing these issues and assuaging the risk of unrest that flowed from them. Put bluntly, none of this really strikes me as offering an especially attractive social model, regardless of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism.


posted by Richard 7:51 PM

Saturday, May 07, 2005

When I described the last set of local elections I noted that the presence of a number of marginal groups like the British National Party had made voting a somewhat depressing affair. Mercifully, the ballot paper was rather more restricted this time, with only the UK Independence Party representing the more questionable side of the political spectrum. As has always been the case, my vote went to the Liberal Democrats and for the first time it proved to have an effect; it helped to reduce the Labour majority sufficiently to allow a Conservative MP in.

At one point, this might have been a consideration that would have weighed more heavily on my mind while voting. Today, the choice between the Scylla and Charybdis of two parties that are equally unworthy of government has relieved me of the need to do anything other than vote as I see fit. To a large extent, this seems representative of the electorate as a whole; with little to choose between the two main parties, voting patterns have been extremely unpredictable with no national patterns. The Labour party have been returned as a minority government that commands an alarmingly low share of the vote, while the Conservatives have failed to increase their share of the vote substantially. Instead, independent candidates have flourished, with the disturbing rise of more extreme parties (UKIP and the BNP at one end of the political spectrum, Respect at the other) seen in past elections also continuing. Of couse, I'm glad to see an increased number of Liberal Democrat seats, but it does concern that me that a party that has never quite managed to fuse liberalism and social democracy into a coherent philosophy seems to see that confusion reflected in the wildly disparate character of the seats they have won (Cambridge and Solihull).

Perhaps my gloominess over elections simply amounts to the fact that I cannot say with any honesty that I particularly share the aspirations of the majority of the population. I vote for the Liberal Democrats on issues like civil liberties and constitutional reform essentially on the basis that they are policies that would change grey and unlovely Britain rather than simply administer it in a different fashion. I found myself strongly agreeing with this comment from Momus:

"I'm afraid I now feel that when I visit Britain. Whether rich or poor, successful or failing, Britain seems just wrong to me. It espouses values I don't espouse. Whatever history it might celebrate is wrong: I can never forgive it for failing to have an eighteenth century bourgeois revolution like the French one, or for failing to have a constitution, or failing to become a republic. Britain is just horribly wrong in so many ways that choosing a red, yellow or blue way of being wrong is pointless. Britain, as far as I'm concerned, is wrong in its attitude to the intellect, to sex, to art, to class, to the body, to the relationship between money and quality of life, to the relationship between work and play, to the relationship between itself and the US, or the relationship between peace and war, or between British people and foreigners, or between sunny days and cloudy days, or... well, I could go on and on, or alternatively I could just go, which is what I ended up doing.

Are any of the major political parties looking at Britain's essential wrongheadedness? What are they proposing to do about it? The answer is that if you really believed Britain was essentially wrong in its way of being, you wouldn't go into politics. You'd go into France, or Germany, or Japan, or India, or Tibet, or somewhere you felt things were less wrong... And why take the perspective that it's politicians who define a place, when it's so clearly ordinary people and their ways of being?"


posted by Richard 10:39 AM

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The subject of comparing fascism and communism is a fairly well trodden one in these days and there are comparatively few willing to advance the old position that communism could claim some form of superiority to fascism. Needless to add, Slavoj Zizek is one of that few:

"Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable... Even at this anecdotal level, the difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. The reason is clear. Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being Jews.

We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the ‘bureaucratic deformation’ of socialism in the USSR and its empire: there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated ‘Nazism with a human face’. Herein lies the flaw (and the bias) of all attempts, such as that of the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, to adopt a neutral position – i.e. to ask why we don’t apply the same standards to the Communists as we apply to the Nazis."

To some extent these observations seemwhat besides the point; there is no denying that communism has tended to be seen as at best a lesser of two evils (in spite of the greater scale of Stalin's crimes and the more arbitrary nature of his terror; we perhaps shouldn't mention that Stalin did indeed persecute the jews in much the same way as the Nazi regime) and at worst as something whose crimes can be exculpated in relation to its more congenial ends. One cannot, after all, make an omelette without breaking eggs. Nor is the Enlightenment heritage of communism in question; but if the deeply embedded romanticism of Western culture that led to Nazism can be called into question in the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wagner, it is difficult to see why the same cannot be said for our enlightenment heritage also (indeed the work of Zygmunt Bauman seeks to do precisely that).

The genuine question is whether the lack of perceived equivalence between them is defendable. For myself, the answer remains that it is not. Where Germany (or at least its Western regions) thoroughly confronted the atrocities of the old regime, the same cannot be said for Russia. Anne Applebaum provides a good description of the consequences of this divergence:

"The result: half a century after the end of World War II, the Germans still conduct regular public disputes about victims’ compensation, about memorials, about new interpretations of Nazi history, even about whether a younger generation of Germans ought to go on shouldering the burden of guilt about the crimes of the Nazis. Half a century after Stalin’s death, there were no equivalent arguments taking place in Russia because the memory of the past was not a living part of the public discourse...

In a very deep sense, some of the ideology of the Gulag also survives in the attitudes and worldview of the new Russian elite. The old Stalinist division between categories of humanity, between the all-powerful elite and the worthless “enemies,” lives on in the new Russian elite’s arrogant contempt for its fellow citizens. Unless that elite soon comes to recognize the value and the importance of all of Russia’s citizens, to honor both their civil and their human rights, Russia is ultimately fated to become today’s northern Zaire, a land populated by impoverished peasants and billionaire politicians who keep their assets in Swiss bank vaults and their private jets on runways, engines running.

Tragically, Russia’s lack of interest in its past has deprived the Russians of heroes, as well as villains. The names of those who secretly opposed Stalin, however ineffectively, ought to be as widely known in Russia as are, in Germany, the names of the participants in the plot to kill Hitler. The incredibly rich body of Russian survivors’ literature—tales of people whose humanity triumphed over the horrifying conditions of the Soviet concentration camps—should be better read, better known, more frequently quoted. If schoolchildren knew these heroes and their stories better, they would find something to be proud of even in Russia’s Soviet past, aside from imperial and military triumphs."


posted by Richard 2:21 PM

Sunday, March 06, 2005

When I started making notes in this journal, the subject of politics often loomed large in my thoughts. Today, it rarely troubles them. An election looms between two parties whose policies continue to converge dramatically. The number of people voting will remain low and extremist parties will continue to emerge (though unlikely to flourish they can often have a regrettable influence on the main parties). The pattern appear set and unlikely to change.

To some extent, the British political system increasingly reminds me, not of Europe or North America, but of the Far East. The current pattern seems to be towards protracted periods of government (not as long as that of the LDP in Japan, but with similar consequences) by increasinly technocratic and unaccountable administrations. The combination of free market capitalism and political authoritarianism in a country like Singapore seems a good parallel to a Britain of control orders, anti-social behaviour orders and curfews. A difference remains but it seems increasingly one of degree and not of kind. As John Gray put it a while ago:

"In The Snake That Swallowed Its Tail, he argues that a highly individualistic type of liberalism - "the philosophy of the short term, of the speed-dating, cold-calling society" - has come to pervade political life in Britain. In the past, thinkers such as John Stuart Mill had a vision of liberal values in which altruism was prized. As Garnett sees it, Mill's "fleshed-out" liberalism was displaced in the Thatcher era by a "hollowed-out", Hobbesian philosophy in which self-interest is at the centre. Liberalism of this latter kind is ultimately self-undermining, he believes: it can end only by "swallowing its tail", at which point a reaction in favour of saner values will set in.

Thatcher believed that the British economy could be revolutionised, and that at the same time Britain's culture could remain unchanged - or revert to the norms of the 1950s. She never understood that the ideology of choice and innovation she promoted in the economy would inevitably spill over into other areas of life. She believed that unfettered choice would somehow be virtuous, and completely failed to foresee the anomic, crime-ridden society that has actually developed. Like other neoliberals, she seems to have imagined that freedom is the natural human condition - a view Thomas Hobbes scorned heartily, and rightly so.

If The Snake That Swallowed Its Tail has a positive message, it is "Back to Mill" - the embodiment of the fleshed-out liberal philosophy that has supposedly been abandoned over the past generation. No doubt Garnett is right in thinking that Mill's was a superior form of liberalism, but it is hard to see how it can be revived today. He tells us that it will return only "once Britain has been entirely hollowed out." However, to adapt a well-known adage of Adam Smith's, there is much hollowness in a nation - and in liberalism. Most likely Britain will drift on much as it does at present, a country where everyone believes in liberal values, yet no one knows what they are."


posted by Richard 7:54 PM

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I was struck by the number of people predicting the fall of the American Empire after Bush's re-election. Such things are not particularly surprising; it is after all the fate of Empires to dwell upon their decline, very bit as much as it is the fate of their rivals to fervently wish for the same outcome. However, such speculation is far from new; I recall reading essays by Gore Vidal predicting the decline of the United States to a similar level of economic status as Chile and Argentina during the late Reagan era. Instead, it was the sun that rose in the East, Japan, that was to sink into recession and relative decline. As many have noted, there is something circular to the current debate;

"Would-be Cassandras have been predicting the imminent downfall of the American imperium ever since its inception. First came Sputnik and "the missile gap," followed by Vietnam, Soviet nuclear parity, and the Japanese economic challenge -- a cascade of decline encapsulated by Yale historian Paul Kennedy's 1987 "overstretch" thesis.

The resurgence of U.S. economic and political power in the 1990s momentarily put such fears to rest. But recently, a new threat to the sustainability of U.S. hegemony has emerged: excessive dependence on foreign capital and growing foreign debt. As former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has said, "there is something odd about the world's greatest power being the world's greatest debtor."

The US does have a number of problems facing it, and the issue of foreign investment is one I noted sometime ago (excuse the indulgence, I never claimed this wasn't an exercise in vanity publishing), with debt funding the US economy to an alarming degree at a time when oil revenues are increasingly being funded in Euros and Yen. One might further note that without the ability to draw on either extensive allied forces (i.e. those of states like France) or drafted troops, US military power has been somewhat curtailed and indeed overstretched in recent years.

The analogy with the Reagan era is especially instructive; like the current administration, Reagan sought to combine low taxation with extensive military investment and commitments, with recession being the rather predictable outcome. The resurgence mentioned above was attributable to a large extent to the United States abandoning extensive military investment. Put bluntly, the US economy is particularly badly geared geared towards affording guns and butter at the same time. Depending on future policy, this is far from suggesting any decline but it certainly suggests that American power is far more heavily circumscribed than the current administration might care to think.

As a footnote, the subject of imperial decline does rather suggest the issue of rivals. The European Union has certainly proved (with Ukraine and Turkey) that its vision of 'soft' power based on international law and multilateralism can be surprisingly effective, its handling of 'harder' power in economic and military terms is more questionable (particularly since trading GDP for social welfare hardly seems a poor bargain). No such questions exist for China and the India, the world's two largest economies until the eighteenth century and which are already undermining certain sectors of the Western economies. However, given the number of decades it would take for either to overtake the US, the subject is a rather academic one in relation to the present prospects for the US.

Update: Eric Hobshawm takes a differing tack ot the issue, comparing the US notion of itself as the 'end of history' to many of the twentieth century's failed utopian projects:

"What we have today is a superpower unrealistically aspiring to a permanent world supremacy for which there is no historical precedent, nor probability, given the limitation of its own resources - especially as today all state power is weakened by the impact of non-state economic agents in a global economy beyond the control of any state, and given the visible tendency of the global centre of gravity to shift from the North Atlantic to the zone of south and east Asia.

Even more questionable is the wider - almost quasi-Hegelian - sense of Fukuyama's phrase. It implies that history has an end, namely a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions. There is no historic justification for teleology, whether non-Marxist or Marxist, and certainly none for believing in unilinear and uniform worldwide development.

The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century."


posted by Richard 7:11 PM

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Peter Singer and Richard Posner have been debating the subject of animal rights. The results aren't especially impressive:

"I do not agree that we have a duty to (the other) animals that arises from their being the equal members of a community composed of all those creatures in the universe that can feel pain, and that it is merely "prejudice" in a disreputable sense akin to racial prejudice or sexism that makes us "discriminate" in favor of our own species... I start from the bottom up, with the brute fact that we, like other animals, prefer our own—our own family, the "pack" that we happen to run with (being a social animal), and the larger sodalities constructed on the model of the smaller ones, of which the largest for most of us is our nation.

I do not feel obliged to defend this reaction; it is a moral intuition deeper than any reason that could be given for it and impervious to any reason that you or anyone could give against it. Membership in the human species is not a "morally irrelevant fact," as the race and sex of human beings has come to seem.

The problem with this argument from Posner, as Singer is quick to point out, is that that the construction of these sodalities is historically, not biologically contingent; in the past exactly the same arguments could have been used to defend the notions that race and sex justify the social inferiority of certain groups. Equally, Posner may well be correct to note that what has altered that was more easily attributable to socio-economic forces that debate, but that does seem little more than a counsel of despair; a case could very easily be made that the collapse of communism was entirely due to such forces rather than the actions of any individuals like Vaclav Havel, but I am less than convinced that Posner is likely to cleave unswervingly to such a notion of realpolitik.

What suprises me is that Posner fails to advance the simple point that the notion of any 'transhuman' community is heavily limited by the fact that only certain beings (i.e. humans) could possibly fully participate in it, with all others having rights assigned to them. It seems rather unlikely that discrimination can be overcome without figures like Luther-King or Pankhurst demanding, rather than passively, receiving rights. Given that, the more moderate reforms Posner suggests (in anys like farming conditions) seem a rather more practical way forward than any vision of the future based on the view that rights are simply something Big Brother hands out.

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posted by Richard 1:23 PM

Thursday, August 26, 2004

When I saw this The New Yorker article, I was reminded of a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson to the effect that a democracy was capable of functioning only in so far as at least ten percent of the electorate were sufficiently educated to take on the role of a 'natural aristocracy' (hence Jefferson's conception of the Senate or the British University Vote);

"Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system... (for the rest) their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system. "

In this scenario, the majority of the electorate vote according to a heuristic rather than ractional model (low-information rationality to put it another way). In the Jeffersonian argument, the outcome of this is that democracy is more accurately oligarchy with a popular face, the model being one of representative government with popular consent (the same notion as in Burke's Address to the Electors of Bristol) rather than a more direct notion of democracy. It does seem to me one of the problems with this account of consistent belief systems is that it neglects the question of how consistent elite ideologies are. For example, current liberal democrat policy combines laissez-faire social libertarianism with a social-democratic approach to the economy that is rather more interventionist. Conservative policy has historically been a conceit that yoked together laissez faire economics with traditional social conservatism and was surprised when the individualistic society created by those economic policies proved indifferent to collective traditions.

Consistency has two aspects; combining policies that are compatible with one another on the one hand, and avoiding the inevitably awkward consequence of taking policies to their logical conclusion. In other words, there is a good argument for elite inconsistency. I'm reminded of an article by Peter Hain on this:

"The key elements of libertarian socialism - decentralisation, democracy, popular sovereignty and a refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty - have a strong pedigree, going back to the mid-seventeenth century, the English Civil War and the radical activists of that age: the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers. Chartists and still later Suffragettes carried on this tradition, as did Robert Owen’s co-operative movement and groups of workers such as the Rochdale Pioneers who in 1844 put into practical effect local socialist ideas for workers' shops, insurance societies, credit unions and companies. Through such initiatives, early trade unionists and socialists invented and practised what the historian A. H. Halsey described as "the social forms of modern participatory democracy". Another nineteenth century socialist, William Morris, explicitly criticised state socialism for upholding the status quo of a centralised, unequal society."

The idea of a libertarian socialism has obvious reservations (i.e. social-democratic goals require some infringement of liberty in order to be achieved, with arguably the idea of democratic majority rule being inherently illiberal) but Hain has a good argument that it is a sensible adaptation to social and economic change. It can also be argued that inconsistency has an important role to play in democratic politics; the most consistent ideologies of recent times were the most absolute, with the history of the twentieth century was precisely of the decline of ideological hegemonies like Communism (in the Soviet Union) and radical Islam (in the Islamic Republic of Iran; lacking any means to critique or reform their all-embracing ideal, it inevitably rotted from within. The problem, of course, is that libertarian socialism is rather a poor (or to be more generous wishful) description of the current Labour party. Having abandoned state planning in favour of free market economics it has effectively adopted them with regard to social policy which is now entirely subordinated to an illiberal and decidedly sinister attempt to enforce 'mutuality' through legislation.


posted by Richard 6:42 PM

Monday, June 14, 2004

Niall Ferguson has given an interview on the reasons why the ten failed American attempts at nation building so outweigh the two successful examples:

"The current account deficit of 5 percent of GDP translates into a huge reliance on foreign capital. Whereas a hundred years ago, Britain was the world’s banker -- it exported capital in net terms on a colossal scale and was in a position to underwrite its imperial activities with serious investment... You really struggle to be a successful empire if you are also the world’s biggest debtor... The second deficit is a manpower deficit. There are no colonists, no settlers willing to leave the United States and go out and Americanize the Middle East, the way that a hundred years ago there were people pouring out of the British Isles.

It’s probably going to take ten years at the basic minimum to make Iraq a stable, functioning market economy with something resembling democracy. And I just think that there is a complete lack of realism about that here because people think, "Oh, this isn’t empire, this is just liberation. "

To a large extent, I can't help wondering if this isn't an overly optimistic judgement on America's suitability for its putative imperial role. In economic terms, US economic growth has essentially been funded by foreign investment, which tends to prove elusive during unstable conditions. While a heavily industrialised economy might well benefit from warfare, this is not sufficient for the US economy where consumer spending tends to prove as elusive during unstable conditions as foreign investment.

This difficulty extends rather further than a lack of realism over Empire; it also applies to the very nature of the US military. British troops had been prepared for activity in Iraq through years of experience in urban warfare (Northern Ireland) and the broader diplomatic and policing activities (UN peace keeping missions ironically enough, something shunned by the US after the respective debacles in Lebanon and Somalia) an occupation requires. By contrast, the technological superiority of the US hyperpower tends to rest on precision guidance weapons delivered by airpower. Frederick Kagan argues that this represents a serious flaw in US military strategy:

"Even in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, ground forces or the threat of their use played the decisive role in bringing the enemy to surrender. In Afghanistan and Bosnia, the U.S. relied on local forces to supply the ground troops, which helped convince the hostile regimes to give in, but also left the U.S. politically beholden to its allies and unable to achieve its political aims as a result. During the Kosovo operation Slobodan Milosevic withstood the American air attack right up until it became clear that a ground attack might follow—and then he surrendered... it goes without saying that only ground forces can execute the peacemaking, peacekeeping, and reconstruction activities that have been essential to success in most of the wars America has fought in the past hundred years."

Although there is a lack of manpower for US military operations (the draft having been mentioned on more than a few occasions in the last year or so), the two other points Ferguson makes are arguably one; cultural. In cultural terms, America remains a nation of immigrants who look back on the rest of the world with suspicion and feel little inclination to hold a passport. While Ferguson may well be correct to note that an occupation force exactly the same size as that Britain originally used in Iraq is hardly adequate when the population of Iraq has grown greatly since that time, a further part of the problem is the general lack of knowledge of other cultures. In Ferguson's history of the British Empire he observed that the specialist knowledge of figures like TE Lawrence gave Britain a considerable advantage over Germany; it might well be said that much the same currently applies to the United States.

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posted by Richard 7:30 PM

Friday, June 04, 2004

I have to say that going to vote today was the most dispiriting of all the occasions when I have gone to make my mark on a ballot paper. The ballot paper for the local elections was essentially what I had seen on previous occasions; the three major parties and the green party. This was therefore a quite small ballot paper with three votes permitted on it. The European election ballot paper was twice as long and had one vote permitted on it. The reason for this difference being the sheer number of present; comprising the far right (British National Party), the nationalist right (UK Independence Party, English Democrat Party), the Religious Right (ProLife, Christian Peoples Alliance) and the far left (Respect). I shall be generous and not include the green party in this list, though it was a narrow decision. Never has Alan Coren's observation that democracy consists of voting for your dictator of choice seemed quite so apt.

This is in many ways an extension of a trend I have noted many times before concerning the matching centripetal and centrifugal tendencies on modern politics; as the three main parties cluster around a single ideological centre (largely in the interest of winning over what were formerly the only sections of the electorate likely to transfer their vote), much of the electorate find they can no longer consider themselves represented and vote for one of the fringe parties accordingly.


posted by Richard 8:08 PM

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

An interesting piece by Richard Rorty on the relation between metaphysics and politics. The debate concerns the Platonic correspondence of moral and political propositions to reality and whether these can be dectermined as clearly as more empirical matters; and if not, then how can a rational choice between a liberal Athens and a fascist Sparta be made?

"To agree with Protagoras and Nietzsche that "man is the measure of all things" is, Wolin thinks, to reduce the choice of democracy over fascism to a matter of taste... Nietzsche and Heidegger thought that once one rejected the Platonic claim to provide rational foundations for moral truth, all things would need to be made new. Culture would have to be reshaped. James and Dewey, by contrast, did not think that giving up the correspondence theory of truth was all that big a deal. They wanted to debunk it, and so help get rid of Platonist rationalism, but they did not think that doing so would make that much difference to our self image or to our social practices. The superstructure, they thought, would still be in good shape even after we stopped worrying about the state of the foundations. Democracy could be adequately defended by empirical, nonmetaphysical arguments of the sort Churchill offered when he said that it was "the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."It did not need "normative resources."

As a defence, there is much to be said for this, but it seems a rather weak defence. As a concept, democracy requires a notion of pluralism that hardly seems compatible with attempts to establish any moral or political concept as definitive. The results of such attempts (The Inquisition in Catholic Spain, theocracy in Calvin's Geneva, Lenin, Stalin and the "ein reich, ein volk, ein fuhrer" approach of Hitler's Germany to take a few rather obvious examples) were no more democratic than Plato's ideas; in each case since each set of propositions was assumed to be beyond question they invariably led to a choice of Sparta rather than Athens.

This debate reminds me of Karl Popper's distinction between open and closed societies; since events could not be predicted the only sensible approach is to proceed through continual open scrutiny; to Popper the notions of democracy and rights can almost be considered as being analagous to peer review. For example, communism had always described itself as being scientific, but was criticised by Popper for failing to pay heed to instances where its tenets had been falsified. Since communism failed to fulfill its predictions it has since fallen into the realm of belief. Another example is Stuart Hampshire's view that the political aim of building consensus is fatally flawed since conflict presumes the right to question authority and safeguards against tyranny; a free society should instead attempt to develop institutions to fairly arbitrate in such cases. Rorty himself has elsewhere argued that since no interpretation of phenomena can lay claim to certain universality, a democracy accompanied by freedoms of speech is the most sensible approach.

The most obvious reply to such defences is that if one has a society of people who take an entirely pluralistic approach to morals and politics then they are unable to respond appropriately to threats to that pluralism from more monologic philosophies. On the whole, while this claim has a superficial value I'm more and more convinced that it is nonsense. To take one illustration, Soviet intelligence proved extremely effective in inflitrating open Western societies but proved extremely ineffective at utilising that intelligence; cases where the intelligence conflicted with official ideology were simply dismissed. The weakness of monologic philosophies is that they have no means of compensating for their own errors. As Hannah Arendt put it:

"Lessing rejoiced in the very thing that has ever, or at least since Parmenides and Plato, distressed philosophers: that the truth, as soon as it is uttered, is immediately transformed into one opinion among many, is contested, reformulated, reduced to one subject of discourse among others. Lessing's greatness does not merely consist in a theoretical insight that there cannot be one single truth within the human world but in his gladness that it does not exist and that, therefore, the unending discourse among men will never cease as long as there are men at all."

Update: Another interesting riposte:

"Imagine a companion volume to Wolin’s, titled The Seduction of Reason, which would trace Karl Marx’s political economy and philosophy of history to their Enlightenment and rationalist foundations, along with various other utopian schemes. Such a book might offer, in opposition to Wolin’s bitter attack on Jung, a chapter on the thoroughly rationalist and scientific B. F. Skinner,
proponent of the soulless utopia Walden Two and the Skinner box... Or it might include, as a counter to Wolin’s discussion of "America" in the imaginations of Heidegger and other European thinkers, a chapter on Frederick Taylor’s influential The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), with its chilling pronouncement "In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first," which helps us to understand the dark image that "America" evoked for Heidegger and others.

Of course, such a history exists, as with Zygmunt Bauman's observation that most of the terrors of the twentieth century had a rationalist foundation, being primarily concerned with abandoning liberal freedoms for the totalitarian enforcement of rational schemes, most obviously with communism.

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posted by Richard 9:21 PM

Friday, March 26, 2004

I've been thinking of late of the differences between European society and politics and those of the United States are worth looking at in more detail. To take domestic policies first, the United States is presently characterised by what could be termed right-wing populism in opposition to a narrative of liberal elitism;

"Markets give us what we want; markets overthrow the old regime; markets empower the little guy. And since markets are just the people working things out in their own inscrutable way, any attempt to regulate or otherwise interfere with markets is, by definition, nothing but arrogance... One populism rails against liberals for eating sushi and getting pierced; the other celebrates those who eat sushi and get pierced as edgy entrepreneurs or as consumers just trying to be themselves. One despises Hollywood for pushing bad values; the other celebrates Hollywood for its creativity and declares that Hollywood merely gives the people what they want."

Where Europeans view redistribution as a means of aiding the disadvantaged, Americans view it as placing a ceiling on their aspirations (A product of not having an aristocratic hierarchy to start with; social mobility becomes more important than the more socialist convention of equality, though that is an increasingly uncertain concept in the US. Tocqueville saw the American idea of equality in relation to measures designed to prevent the formation of an aristocracy). The extent of inequality in American society is such that any other state (or at least any European one) would have produced much more left-wing governance over time. But with some exceptions like the New Deal, there's little sign of it in the United States. By the same token, most European nations have become progressively more and more secular over the last half-century, where the US would seem to have become more religiose. Accordingly, attempts by conservatives in Britain to stress family values and to denounce Westminster elitist liberals faltered where the same attempts in the United States thrived. President Bush seeks to criminalise same-sex civil partnerships, Michael Howards supports them.

Translating this into foreign policy terms, the result is that much of Europe tends to view American policy as irrationally moralistic and becomes sceptical as to whether American religious fundamentalism is a proper response to Islamic religious fundamentalism. Equally, the American national narrative has become increasingly tarnished due to the gap between said narrative and actual levels of social mobility; its ability to offer a compelling vision to its allies accordingly suffers (typically at the same time as lambasting said allies for being overly concerned with equality at the expense of economic growth). Turning to foreign policy alone, the United States tends to view national interest and sovereignty as paramount concerns. Conversely, European experience during the second world war has left them wary of national interest as the sole consideration, while European colonial experience had left them sceptical as to whether framing the conflict in military terms is an appropriate response. It would be too easy to slip into a distinction between post-historical Europe and America here, but it should be observed that 'post-national' Europe is in most regards essentially pursuing national interest by other means. Where the United States administration has shown little interest in using international law and trans-national co-operations as a means of addressing terrorism, the Madrid bombings appear to have produced the opposite response in Europe, using trans-national integration as a means of reinforcing national security.

Of course, all such broad distinctions run the risk of falling into caricature. The US critique of post-nationalism as leading to removal of democratic accountability and increased powers for national executives at the expense of legislative branches is a powerful one. Equally, the American critique of international law as giving an essentially equal weighting to dictatorships and democracies is not easy to dismiss. But if nothing else, it does suggest that Europe has a valid alternative view of such matters; something that seems important to me when considering the charges that the change in Spain's government amounted at appeasement. Undeniably, that is how it may be seen by both the United States and Islamic terrorists. But it seems equally possible to me to construe the Spanish election as a protest against how attempts to deal with terrorism have been conducted, against the view that the American approach to such matters is the only possible one.


posted by Richard 3:27 PM

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

I was rather taken aback to come across this phrase in a piece describing the new Tory marketing strategy:

"We are looking at voters as consumers; they are the same people who buy sofas or cans of fizzy drink... The Tories' switch to the sort of advertising employed by high street retailers and consumer brands breaks with party political advertising tradition."

The parallel is presumably an exact one, given that most cans of fizzy drinks are every bit as homogenous and indistinguishable as political parties. Cynicism aside, the replacement of the idea of the citizen with the idea of the consumer seems imprecise to me; particulary given that much of Tory policy has encouraged that idea on the one hand (in particular the concept of applying consumer choice to the provision of public services, for example hospital league tables, school vouchers) and demanded notions of citizenship on the other (the defence of tradition, promulgation of family values and so on). The problem is that while it isn't necessarily true that the role of consumer and citizen are opposed, nor is it true that they are necessarily identical. There is a difference between a market state and a nation state and it might be as well for all concerned to make a choice between two not especially compatible models.


posted by Richard 12:14 PM

Sunday, February 29, 2004

An interesting paper from Bruce Alexander, ostensibly on the subject of addiction but with wider implications for capitalist society:

"Psychosocial integration is essential for every person in every type of society-it makes life bearable, even joyful at its peaks... Insufficient psychosocial integration can be called "dislocation." Although any person in any society can become dislocated, modern western societies dislocate all their members to a greater or lesser degree because all members must participate in "free markets" that control labour, land, money and consumer goods. Free markets require that participants take the role of individual economic actors, unencumbered by family and friendship obligations, clan loyalties, community responsibilities, charitable feelings, the values or their religion, ethnic group, or nation... People who persistently fail to achieve genuine psychosocial integration eventually construct lifestyles that substitute for it."

It's an interesting argument (if a rather psychoanalytic interpretation of Marx, though Marx was unlikely to have been so nostalgic for 'clan loyalties'), largely because it's one that has always seemed to carry a great deal of truth to it (and is certainly more convincing than the conservative view of social dislocation being attributable to the permissive society and moral decline). That said, the particular point of interest for me is comparison with Anthony Giddens and his views of post-traditional identity, wherein the decline of imposed social roles necessitates the creation of more diverse lifestyles.

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posted by Richard 1:08 PM

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I've never been particularly convinced by Jim Bennett's idea of the Anglosphere. It seemed to me that by concentrating on shared traditions it neglected other aspectcs; for example, the World Value Survey usually tends to show Britain where most of us expected it to be; poised between Europe and America rather than alongside the other Anglosphere states. In particular, Britain usually tends to be closest to Austria and about as close to the United States as we are to Uruguay. Accordingly, I was rather cynical when I read this but was interested to find some validation for my view of how Europe may develop:

"The Industrial Revolution made continent-spanning nation-states possible. The Information Revolution offers the possibility that civil societies may link themselves on a globe-spanning-although not universally inclusive-scale. Such is the network civilization... This facilitates the movement of people, goods and services across borders, forming and strengthening shared cultures (both elite and popular) and experiences-for example, common publications read by the publics of all of the nations of a particular network civilization."

I should mention that in spite of a shared view regarding the development of transnational ties my cynicism hasn't entirely abated; the idea that Britain is better placed to gain economic success from technological innovation than Europe should be easily dismissed by this which places the UK beneath every other European nation and just above Israel in a ranking of how countries have used information technology to boost economic growth. Similarly, his insistence on civil society being central to stability and prosperity belies the extent to which modern states achieved those goals by aggressive centralisation of power at the expense of civil society. Finally, I'm somewhat cynical about his view that this transformation will necessarily be channelled by shared traditions or that any notion of the social-democratic state should be discarded (the movement of valye to countries with a comparative advantage founded on cost, if taken to such an extent that Western economies are left largely based on consumption rather than production, creates exactly the conditions where social democracy is most needed).

Update: Piece dedicated to the idea of the Anglosphere. I'm sceptical. I suspect it exaggerates points of similarity, whereas British social attitudes are more closely affiliated with European attitudes on most subjects (as with the taxation example above, or this). For example, consider this piece from The Economist, and in particular this map of cultural values divided by state. The map shows that not only is the United States populace more religious than its European counterparts, but that this affects attitutudes towards a range of subjects, which Europe regards as technical issues and the United States as moral. On the map New Zealand and Britain have essentially European virtues, leaving Ireland and the United States at the other end of the spectrum.


posted by Richard 9:09 PM

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Virginia Postrel has written a surprisingly interesting introduction to Friedrich Hayek. This part, in particular, struck me:

"Because he emphasized the pluralism of values, the limits of knowledge, and the totalitarian side of "rationalist" (or, as he would put it, "scientistic") control, some have claimed Hayek as a precursor to postmodernism. Indeed, toward the end of his life, postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault gave lectures on Hayek's work.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, says that in a broad sense Hayek anticipated many postmodern critiques. "Hayekian liberalism and postmodernism alike are not interested in total knowledge, or in the total institutions necessary to maintain such a vision," says Gillespie, who holds a doctorate in literary studies. "For Hayek, the very essence of liberalism properly understood is that it replaces the ideal of social uniformity with one of competing difference." That's why Foucault, though no Hayekian liberal, "recognized that Hayek's formulation of a private sphere was a meaningful hedge against the worst excesses of state power.

Leaving aside the imprecise use of terms like post-modernism (which I doubt Postrel has ever come across in any context other than as a term of abuse), I'm rather pleasantly surprised that my own thoughts on this matter have some precedent. For instance, Richard Rorty holds that since no interpretation of phenomena can lay claim to certain universality, a democracy accompanied by freedoms of speech is the most sensible approach. Both Hayek and Popper criticised the predictive capability of economics (given the claim of Marxism to be scientific in particular), the latter taking the view that since events could not be predicted the only sensible approach is to proceed through continual scrutiny; to Popper the notions of democracy and rights can almost be considered as being analagous to peer review. All of which tends to leave me rather puzzled why those that currently claim Hayek's mantle so frequently prove to be considerably more dogmatic than their mentor ever was. One other passage struck me from the piece:

"This analysis, which applies as much to culture as to economics, informs Hayek's best-known work, "The Road to Serfdom," which he wrote as a wartime warning to a popular audience. Published in 1944 and dedicated "to the socialists of all parties," the book argued that the logic of socialist central planning implied the erosion of personal freedoms. Britain's well-intended socialists were headed down the same path as the National Socialists whose rise Hayek had witnessed in Austria... Even today, the book's thesis is often misstated as what Caldwell calls "the inevitability thesis -- that if you start down the road to intervention in the economy, you're automatically going to end up in a totalitarian state." But Hayek spent much of his career arguing against the then-popular idea of historical laws. Nor did he oppose an economic safety net; a wealthy society, he believed, could provide a basic income for the poor."

Again, as Postrel is entirely correct to point out, Hayek was far from being dogmatic on such matters. However, the problem is that as a historical account of the rise of fascism in Germany, The Road to Serfdom is rather poor; state control of the economy in pre-WW2 Germany is probably better described as a product of fascism than as a causal factor.


posted by Richard 9:28 PM

Saturday, October 25, 2003

The Age had a somewhat interesting discussion of rights recently, written from a hostile communitarian and christian perspective:

"Society is more than a collection of individuals. The atomistic view cannot survive the important and pervasive distinction between matters that are "for me and for you", on one hand, and those that are "for us" on the other... The atomistic tendency is so strong we may want to put it in individual mind states: now I know he is attending and he knows I am attending, and he knows I know, and so on. But just adding these individual states doesn't get us to the shared condition where we in fact are... Liberalism can give only a reductionist account for this because the state is merely an aggregation of individuals who must preserve their autonomy against threatened encroachments... Someone living utterly alone has no need of rights; it is in society that rights become important.

Alasdair MacIntyre, who has done much to restore the idea of virtue as central to ethics, objects on Aristotelian grounds. He thinks rights discourse is not really a moral language at all, but an ideological club wielded to defend self-interest and secure concession. In After Virtue, he writes: "There are no (natural) rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns" - and for the same reason, every attempt to give good reasons for believing there are such rights has failed. Though not a relativist, MacIntyre sees morality as a "practice" learnt in a community with a tradition. The idea of universal rights ignores these historical and communal dimensions and relies again on the Hobbsian pre-social isolated individual. It leads to an individualistic understanding of morality. Another philosophical school identifies a different problem with the dominance of rights talk: often it is simply inadequate to capture what is at stake. French thinker Simone Weil, who described rights as a mediocre concept, said such talk made it difficult to see the real problem. "If you say to someone who has ears to hear: 'What you are doing to me is not just', you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love." But words such as "I have a right to" awaken the spirit of contention. Putting rights at the centre of social conflict inhibits any possible impulse of charity on both sides.

As it happens I'm not averse to the idea that there is no such thing as a natural right. Hobbes described only one natural right, that of self defence, since it was the only form of right that would not be alienated in a state of nature (and although the idea of such a body as a government having it within its power to bestow or deprive populaces of rights may be unpalatable, the fact is that they do indeed have this capability). By the same token, association of the term natural rights with Locke is somewhat awkward, since Locke assumes that the subject of said rights is not in a state of nature, but rather that concepts such as property exist and that this creates a requirement for some form of reciprocal contract. This is why much of Locke's theories are analogous to an idea of market exchange (i.e. freedom from any relations other than those one enters with a view to her or his own interest. Society is a series of relations between proprietors. Political society is a contractual device for the protection of proprietors and the orderly regulation of their relations.)

Equally, there are certainly a set of rights that have been established by tradition, but in practice these vary considerably between states, which makes it rather difficult to speak of them as being 'natural.' The most glaring example if one alluded to above; that the US constitution in permitting the formation of militias has led to the notion of a right to bear arms, a right few (or none even?) other states happen to recognise. As such, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that rights are established by popular sovereignty; it seems equally difficult to avoid the conclusion that this does indeed run the risk of tyranny of the majority or of the state. But the possibility of tyranny of the majority is precisely why the christian and communitarian critique fails; for example, it cannot account for such bodies as the inquisition, and assumes that society is essentially benign in character. There may be no such thing as natural rights but there are certainly necessary rights. To illustrate this, the most obvious example would be Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative rights:

"Rousseau does not mean by liberty the ‘negative’ freedom of the individual not to be interfered with within a defined area, but the possession by all, and not merely by some, of the fully qualified members of a society of a share in the public power which is entitled to interfere with every aspect of every citizen’s life. The liberals of the first half of the nineteenth century correctly foresaw that liberty in this ‘positive’ sense could easily destroy too many of the ‘negative’ liberties that they held sacred."

While I am not quite as sceptical about positive rights as Berlin (or for that matter Hayek), it is difficult to deny some of the implications of this, particularly when we consider the Uk government policy of conditionality; tenants in council houses being evicted if they are convicted of anti-social behaviour when they supposedly had a right to housing, patients being charged for missing appointments and so on. Positive rights do seem to have a habit of being inverted (and as the article notes are frequently asymmetrical; "Though more government money goes to business than to people on the dole, no enforceable obligations are set for business, yet individuals face harsh penalties.") and becoming demands, a form of coercion.

Finally, the point in the article I am least impressed by is that rights tend to conflict. One might argue that is what they are there for; to contend between competing claims. In that sense they are certainly not a substitute for forms of trust but nopr are they to blame for the decay of trust, something Onora O'Neill observed in her Reith lectures:

"One standard contemporary answer is that the political conditions for placing trust must be achieved, and that these include human rights and democracy... human rights and democracy are not the basis of trust: on the contrary, trust is the basis for human rights and democracy. "

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posted by Richard 4:18 PM

Friday, October 10, 2003

An interesting interview with Zygmunt Bauman, elaborating his views concerning the impact of replacing production with consumption and the consequent consumerisation of citizenship:

"It reduces the citizen to a consumer: the citizen's right to the offer of good commodity and after-sale service, the citizen's duty to provide a 'consumer-led exit from economic depressions' yet to come. And it propagates and perpetuates the damaging (to society, and to each one of its members) illusion that consumer confidence (a lie here: there can be no confidence without resources allowing for confident action) is the cure for shared and individually experienced troubles... The roots of uncertainty and insecurity lie, anyway, well outside the reach of national governments. They are global, and located in the 'space of flows' (Manuel Castells' expression) - flows that governments, confined in the 'space of places', have no means to arrest or even slow down."

As a sociological explanation of much modern social alienation, it is difficult to argue with this (though it might be argued that a capitalist society can only function with a reasonable degree of stability rather than the continual uncertainty he describes). The solution is, rather predictably, more of a problem. When Bauman makes an observation concerning "social obligations and privatising conditions of human life out of the reach of political, democratic control," one does feel rather tempted to ask whether such conditions have ever been under political control (democratic or otherwise, since I tend to accept Hayek's view that that degree of control is difficult to square with any notion of a liberal society). In the event that it had been, it seems rather unlikely that there would be any need to contemplate such a thing as third way politics.


posted by Richard 1:15 PM

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Reading Lakoff's open letter on metaphor in politics, I'm more than a little puzzled. Clearly, watering down the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does little to improve it:

"The State-as-Person metaphor highlights the ways in which states act as units, and hides the internal structure of the state. Class structure is hidden by this metaphor, as is ethnic composition, religious rivalry, political parties, the ecology, the influence of the military and of corporations (especially multinational corporations). Consider national interest. It is in a person's interest to be healthy and strong. The State-as-Person metaphor translates this into a national interest of economic health and military strength."

Such metaphors are indeed a common feature of conservative discourse and there are no objections to the analysis on that score. But all metaphors tends to disperse their signification as much as they reveal it; that, as Paul De Man observed, is the nature of the beast. In which case, the point surely remains that such conceptions need to be critiqued in terms of politics (as it is rhetoric we are speaking of) rather than linguistics.

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posted by Richard 10:01 PM

Friday, January 17, 2003

Interesting piece from Slavoj Zizek on the role of disaster films in modern life. Certainly, I recall that the phrase 'just like a film' kept on recurring ad nauseam after September 11th, as if they was no other way to process what had happened only through analogy. As ever, I find Zizek extremely interesting while disagreeing with his fundamental proposition. In particular; "I believe that liberal democracies are paradoxical in the sense that they contain a fundamental blindness about the ideological mechanisms which operate within them. Take, for instance, the liberal principle of free choice. Choices made by people in democratic states are not necessarily less compulsory, and yet they experience these choices as though they are free." I suspect the obvious reply would be that of Tocqueville, that liberty and democracy are arguably cultural matters more than affairs of institutions held by the dead letter of the law. On the other hand, I have noticed that terms like liberty and democracy are frequently empty signifers, used glibly by individuals less than committed to either concept. I'm certainly sceptical of any simplisitic causal relationship between democracy and liberty, i.e. that free markets make free people. Democracy has been known to create conditions of instability extremely conducive to totalitarianism, as the Wemar Republic illustrates. That said, I am still not quite persuaded that no such relationship exists. Niall Ferguson has some interesting perspectives on this.


posted by Richard 9:49 AM