Category Archives: Blog

Trotsky on the Fabian Society

“nowadays the most reactionary grouping in Great Britain… These pompous authorities, pedants and haughty, high-falutin’ cowards are sytematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie continue to survive and even suppose themselves to be fairly in the saddle.”

Leon Trotsky, quoted in J. Callaghan, 1987, The Far Left in British Politics. p.10.

Free Trade War

“What we see today – continual warfare and persistent authoritarianism in the post-colonial world and explosive terrorism spreading its horrors – are dark streaks across the vision of peace seen by the free-trader…
A nation-state system based on furthering material interests is incapable of curbing violence. It is only by relentlessly pursuing the deepening of the democratic revolution – at home and abroad – that we can hope to respond to the multifaceted injustice that defines our age.”

One of the most appealing arguments for an international economic regime of free and frequent trade is that it will – through nations’ own self interest – lead to peaceful international relations. Continue reading Free Trade War

Unmask the Violence

It seems to me, that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that we can fight them.

Michel Foucault quoted in Rabinow (1986) The Foucault Reader, p.6

G8 Comes to Sheffield

So its not had the publicity attached to the big G8 event in Gleneagles, Scotland, next month, but it is now just two weeks until the justice and home affairs ministers of the G8 countries gather in Sheffield to swap notes and make plans.

I had heard that it would be just the G7 ministers (i.e. excluding Russia) coming along. If true this might let Russia off the hook, given today’s news that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a trenchent critic of Putin and the Kremlin, has been jailed for nine years. (Independent, Mosnews Interview) With minimal knowledge of the case I can’t help feeling deeply ambivalent. I’m all for billionaire oil tycoons who are convicted of fraud and tax evasion being locked up. I’d like to see more of it. Though the concern on everybody’s minds is, of course, that it was his funding of opposition political parties that really got him in trouble.

So, what’s on the agenda? The public information suggests that on the agenda for the Sheffield meeting is work on transnational organised crime and counter-terror measures. A sceptical glance at the thin details available publicly are as follows.

First up is counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan. The UK is supposed to be the lead nation here, but only last week was the subject of criticism by both the US and Hamid Karzai that it simply wasn’t doing its job properly.(Guardian)

Next, the curbing of immigration crime, focussing particularly on documentation. I can’t help suspecting that a focus on documentation is either a red herring, to stop us worrying about the 1,800 people currently locked up without trial or time limit in detention centres in the UK (with plans in progress for another 4,000 places). (Barbed Wire Britain) The alternative is, of course, that what they’ll actually be talking about is making everybody’s documentation less forgable, which suggests biometric data for all.

The final note is a mixed bag, “international law enforcement co-operation, focussing on child protection, the expanded use of DNA and the international illegal trade in firearms”. As I’m in skeptical mood I’ll just ask, why only firearms? The illegal trade in all grades of weapons continues apace, with London as the international centre for arms trading. (Noted in passing in today’s Independent, much more in relation to DSEIDisarm DSEI!.)

What’s not on the agenda? Well perhaps the major thing that’s missing is what plans the G8 ‘justice’ ministers have for the burgeoning network of torture centres they are maintaining in countries with less ‘respectable’ records on human rights. Are they going to talk about it? Work out who’s footing the bills? Who’s providing the soldiers? Worry about the reliability of the ‘evidence’ they are disclosing?

As I said, a skeptical look, and it is quite possible that they’ll come up with some valuable initiatives. However, with the quality of information publicly available, what they’ll actually be discussing is anybody’s guess. A couple of catchphrases and bureaucratic buzzwords is all we’re offered. The main criticism aimed at the actions of the G8 is currently a complete lack of transparency. And as yet, despite a smooth looking website and a charming picture of the PM, the UK presidency of the G8 does not look likely to open it up to any significant degree.

Further Information on the G8 in Sheffield

Some relevant national organisations

Are You a British Citizen Yet?

You’ve probably heard a little about citizenship ceremonies. Here’s what the Home Office induces us with. Is it the encouragement to become a part of a wider community in which you love and respect others and recieve love in return? Does it have the imagination and excitement required to bring people into the social and political community in an active way, in the full knowledge that they can make their country a better place? Does it bugger. <!–more–>

According to the front page of the Home Office’s British Citizenship website, its bureaucracy stupid.

  1. To become a British citizen you will need to apply for British Nationality.
  2. Once you have been granted British citizenship there will be a ceremony to attend.
  3. After your ceremony, the local authority will inform the Home Office of your attendance. You are then eligible to apply for a British passport.

Pretty awesome huh? And what happens at the ceremony I hear you cry. The picture of stonehenge on the website conjures images of dryadic ritual, barefooted, and crowned in ivy, a dance of equals inviting the newcomer in. A long night of hedonic ritual to follow during which all eventually bow to the British psilocybins. Oh no, turns out its an oath of allegiance to the Queen. To the Queen?! Count me out.

Oath of allegiance

I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

Affirmation of allegiance

I (name) do solemnly and sincerely affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.
After the Oath or affirmation, you will take the citizenship Pledge

Pledge

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

The Superintendent Registrar will then present you with your citizenship certificate and an information pack. There may be an informal celebration with light refreshments.

A Vote for Voting Properly

With the election behind us a few voices are at last crying foul – and this time its not just the Lib Dems. But the issue of electoral reform goes way beyond who got how many seats.

What we Voted ForThe image on the right, from the Independent tells a striking story. Under proportional representation our parliament would now look very different, indeed the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power with neither Labour nor the Tories able to form a government on their own. Their analysis needs some serious qualification: PR is unlikely to be sprung upon us, after we’d cast our votes, so our knowledge of our direct effect on the power of the different parties would change voting behaviour in marked and fairly unpredictable ways. We can, however, be certain both that more people would come out to vote, and that tactical voting would diminish (or even become meaningless). Continue reading A Vote for Voting Properly

What Revolutionary Action Means Today

“Pessimism is the mood inspired by a reasoned conviction that only a revolutionary change can ward off the consequences that are implicit in the tendencies in contemporary American society, but that such a revolution … is neither possible nor prudent – if by revolution we mean launching a campaign of violent insurrection or civil war. Revolutions of that nature are plainly pathological under contemporary conditions of interdependency.

Democrats need a new conception of revolution. Its text should be John Locke not Karl Marx, because the problem is not to show that a social class should seize power – no social class in an advanced society can pretend to the universality of right which Marx presupposed in the workers of his day – but to reinvent the forms and practices that will express a democratic conception of collective life.

Locke is best remembered for the argument that when those who rule seem bent on acquiring ‘Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties and Estates of the People’, their power, which they hold on trust from the people, reverts, and the people are free to fashion new institutions. The right to revolution is not solely a right to overturn and destroy institutions but to fashion new ones because those who rule have perverted the old ones. The right to revolution is the right to creat new forms.”

Sheldon Wolin (1992) “What Revolutionary Action Means Today” in C. Mouffe, ed., Dimensions of Radical Democracy. Verso, London.

The Good Republican and the Child

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, has been looking into the way that conservatives and liberals in the US think. It all come’s down to models of family life he argues. And for a bit of shock value he quotes a number of books on raising children, written by Christian repulicans. So, here’s the worst of ’em

When youngsters display stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately… You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? [1]

The spanking should be administered firmly. It should be painful and it should last until the child’s will is broken. It should last until the child is crying, not tears of anger, but tears of a broken will. [2]

Obedience is the foundation for all character. It is the foundation for the home. It is the foundation for a society. It is absolutely necessary…
Obedience is the most necessary ingredient to be required from the child. This is especuially truue for a girl, for she must be obedient all her life… the boy is being trained to be a leader, the girl is being trained to be a follower. [2]

Spare the rod and spoil the child… a number of rods should be kept throughout the house, in your car, and in your purse so that you can apply loving correction immediately.[3]

Cute huh? Those references:

  1. J. Dobson, 1992, The New Dare to Discipline.
  2. J. Hyles, 1972, How to Rear Children.
  3. L. Tomczak, 1982, God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents.

Liberals for National Service

This election is really dull – the main parties are once again conducting a marketing strategy aimed almost entirely at a very small number of floating voters in swing seats. Yawn. Polly Toynbee hit the nail on the head.

So, here, instead, is something out of leftfield, it turns out that lots of my liberal mates are quite into the idea of national service, here’s (more or less) how the conversation went:

Here’s a taster of what the BNP are up to in Barking… here are some pledges which may (or may not) convince you to vote for them..!! Look at number 4!!!

BNP pledges:

  1. Complete halt to all immigration and “voluntary resettlement” of ethnic minority Britons to their “lands of ethnic origin”
  2. Redeployment of British troops from Iraq to secure Channel tunnel and Kent ports against illegal immigration
  3. Reintroduction of compulsory military service
  4. All adults who have completed military service required to keep a military assault rifle in their home
  5. Corporal punishment for petty criminals and the death penalty for paedophiles, terrorists, murderers and drug dealers or importers.

Jaysus!!! They are completely whacko aren’t they?

this is going to be unpopular but I actually think that introducing national service is not a bad idea

Me and my boss were just agreeing too…not sure about the assault rifle part though!!

Not unpopular here, I wouldn’t disagree at all…

There are loads of options we could offer consciptees to choose from, many of which could benefit from low cost, enthusiastic labour, and which could undoubtedly benefit those taking part:

  • Environmental Management such as natural habitat restoration
  • Community Work
  • Social Work
  • Peacekeeping with the military
  • Overseas Development
  • Corralling Immigrants at riflepoint into prison ships for sending back to Bongobongoland ;-p
  • Other works of a charitable nature

And additionally, it could delay the starting age for University which I reckon would cut down on course drop out rates and wasted first years; simply by giving everyone a year out of taught education in which to clarify what they wanted from life.

Wow, lots of votes in national service eh? Although from that list the primary purpose of the military seems a little obscured. Still, with enough rebranding maybe the army would soon be so full of hippies that its brutal bullying discipline will be undermined by a major culture shift. Without that though we’d probably be forcing a generation of youth into a training regime that has been consciously designed to stifle the imagination and create absolute, unquestioning obedience to authority.

There’s definitely something positive about people learning to manage and direct their agression, only from the little I know about squaddies on the piss the army doesn’t actually do that very well.

So national service, great idea, but lets have it managed by someone other than the military, with the added bonus that if your government gets a taste for a bit of old fashioned imperialism you won’t get pulled from your vital dreamcatcher recycling workshops in order to shoot someone and nick their country.

Maybe we could have national civic service instead: This would be compulsary as well, but you wouldn’t go into the army necessarily but do the kinda stuff suggested (maybe without the forcible deportations to Bongobongoland) under a civic authority instead. Just think of all those fresh faced 18 year olds being forced to make the country a nicer place to be and hating every minute of it!!!

“One volunteer is better than ten pressed men.”

So I read, anyway. Not entirely sure what it means… pressed men? Is it like pressed olives? This implies there’s such a thing as extra virgin man oil, which is frankly just a little bit wierd, and ever so slightly seedy. Wierd, seedy – but logically, true! Wow.

What we need to do is get rid of the nuclear deterrent. It’s only coz of dem pesky nukes that the military got cut back in the first place. (That’s actually true! No, really actually. Which kinda makes me go “er… nukes: great! Less national service and less army! Cool! Oh, hang on – potential Armageddon destroying all life as we know it! Bad thing! Er… confused! Bugger!”)

p.s. *Did you know* that the total number of olive presses in the Palestinian Territory is 285, of which 242 are operating, while 43 are temporarily closed? I bet you didn’t, did you?

Okay, so it got a bit surreal towards the end.

Social Evolution and God’s Games

Conversation notes, in collaboration with James Richardson.

Our creations and destructions are changing our environment far too quickly for our genetic building blocks to keep up. To the extent that our actions, as a society, are created by a system, it is by a system predicated on self-interest. Hardly a surprise, for as carriers of ‘selfish genes’ we are programmed to do all in our power to ensure the survival of our own biological offspring. The triumph of capitalism is to turn the rational, informed individual action, oriented to personal material fulfilment, into action that best serves the society in which we find ourselves. Or so it said on the box.

Yet the triumph of capitalism seems to bring the triumph of the greedy, the malevolent and the dishonest. Huge quantities of wasteful and wasted production are environmentally destructive, while the comfort of the few depends on the deprivation of the many.

The marketing industry is one reason that capitalism continues to malfunction. In serving a system based on the rational decisions of millions, marketing firms spend countless creative minds on appealing to our less than rational impulses. Equipped with a powerful understanding of symbolic manipulation they take advantage of the short-cuts we have developed precisely to avoid the need to take a calculated approach to choice. Our ability to perceive the possible consequences of a wide range of our actions, way into the future, would paralyse us were it not for systems of habit formation, trust in the familiar, social identity formation, role adoption and so on. Instinctively the front-desk agents of capitalism have plugged straight into these non-rational forms of thought offering us lifestyles, identities and statements rather than cars, clothes or food.

Our extended symbolic capacity is what some say sets us off from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. Others, dwindling in number, say it is our morality, by which we understand our potential for altruistic action. The one, we argue, is based on the other.

Observed in a variety of creatures, self-interested genes sometimes propel their carriers to apparently altruistic action, which on closer investigation is based on a system of reciprocity: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The deals struck by male dolphins, requiring other males to help wrest a hot female from a third group for the purpose of gang rape, is of this form. The dolphins initiating the deal gain a genetic lottery ticket with short odds, while the abetters swim away without a betting slip. The evolution of this behaviour requires some explanation, given the lack of immediate reproductive award in aiding others’ copulation. A deal is necessarily struck, however, and later the abetters will be in the position of the rapists, and have been traced swimming hundreds of miles to find the former instigators who will return the favour. Trust is difficult to come by in the natural world, but such examples are far from unique.

Reciprocity indeed provides an evolutionary basis for reciprocity (which may appear as altruism) among humans; it does not explain, however, incidents of altruism that cross species boundaries: rescuing baby birds or adopting abandoned kittens.

Reciprocity will not explain genuine altruism either. Some people will jump into the river to save the life of others they do not know; others will not. The first may be understandable through the particular cognitive shortcuts they have devised in order to exist in a complex society. Rationally we might say that by doing unto others as you would be done by must be conducive to a society in which your chances of survival are increased. However, rationally we might well realise that you might as well free ride on others altruism without getting wet yourself. Instinctively we depend on the abstract symbolic forms that guide our lives some people will jump.

But self-interest can be internsalised – it is impossible to say whether (and if so to what extent) actions that help another individual, group or the species entire, is motivated by ‘pure’ altruism or is self-serving in some less immediately tangible way.

What of the ‘warm glow’? This is not necessarily simply a feeling of smugness (‘I have done right’, a karma for the self and for no other), but even where we commit ourselves to actions which have no benefit for us as individuals per se (or ‘ours’, whether you take that to refer to close-knit genetic group, culture, what you will) is there not a possibility that the mere knowledge of our having ‘done right’ is a tonic for the self? Indeed, how can it be otherwise? For to say at the point of altruistic contact that one has ‘done the right thing’ is to gloss over your ignorance of the context of your action (for one can never have comprehensive knowledge of its precedents), and its effects in the future. Rightness can be read in the full and unforgiving light of history; else it is read in a poor light – now we see through a glass darkly, as Corinithians would have it. So maybe one cannot and should not think of one’s actions as right or wrong at all, no matter how noble seems the justification that the surface of mind holds up to you…this needs must indicate a paralysis, else a resolution to act as one thinks is right, accompanied by an acceptance that your own understanding of right and wrong is culturally specific. An imperfect solution, which must be embraced as the best when a perfect solution is so obviously lacking.

I can think of two explanations; what is interesting about them is that neither can be seen as in any way ‘practical’, i.e. having some general or specific evolutionary advantage:

1. Something religious/spiritual, a pure altruism, which it would be nice (because a very encouraging sign) to think that humans were capable of, since it suggests a capacity to be kind without any hope of kindness being returned. There is of course a very rarefied idea of reciprocity here, psychic rather than material, which makes the boundary between this explanation and the other blurred:

2. the heretofore mentioned ‘warm glow’ theory of altruistic action, terribly cynical, but no less credible. Maybe the cold glow rather than the warm would be a better light to look at it in (better descriptively but worse in implication, since it suggests that rather than doing the right thing in order to get a feeling of self-satisfaction we do it because of the potential guilt of inaction. This is all very Calvinistic and ‘orrible).

The problem seems to me to be that our capacity for self-delusion is such that it would be very difficult to properly assess whether we were acting in our own psychic self-interest (since we obviously would suppress this knowledge – the warm glow does not come, the cold glow cannot be kept away, if one knows one is not acting genuinely altruistically) or doing good because good should be done.

And if our concept of good has become divorced from what is biologically necessary it raises interesting questions as to how such a concept could evolve – perhaps it is a pleasant mutation of the original flowering of intra-species altruism that, through the security of knowledge of generalised reciprocity, has given our species so many advantages (the benefits of which can be felt far more quickly than biochemical evolution would allow). So inter-species altruism follows, and the ultimate extrapolation of altruism – where its ‘goodness’ would be very hard to question – would be behaviour for which one knows one will not only be unrewarded (either by one’s conscience, tangibly by other people, or intangibly by the mechanism of reciprocity) but will actually suffer or die. Laying down one’s life, in fact – the most important doctrine in Christianity is that of ‘Christ crucified’ (which possibly explains why Christ living, walking around and generally being normal are not of paramount concern to the Gospel writers). Of course if one believes one will receive a spiritual reward for such action then this could be argued to be very far from altruism indeed; but even if one is generally spiritual rather than specifically religious there is a strong suggestion that an irrational altruism based on unscientific concepts like the sanctity of life…

Symbolic forms are almost infinitely malleable. We may not understand the laws of their formation and change but we see values of all kinds motivate actions courageous and cowardly. ‘Civil rights’, ‘national independence’, ‘no to nuclear testing’ and ‘terrorism’ have all had the power of life and death.

If there is some great CEO in the sky directing the course of human action, they have set an exciting endgame. By providing the species with brains capable of advanced symbolic manipulation they have given us a means to alter our environment beyond our biological capability to adapt. To continue acting with self-interest as the only guide appears to be headed directly for catastrophe. By the same processes, however, we have been granted the ability to hold values that reach beyond the immediate destiny of our own particular mixes of genes. Is it this evolutionary twist that offers some chance of salvation.

How to… be well rounded.

Once, being well-rounded was easy because you just had to know the rules of cricket, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and some of the more obvious military tactics like running at the enemy firing guns or hiding behind a wall firing guns (the crucial factor being that the enemy is armed with pointy sticks).

Today, being well-rounded is much more difficult, its all about about balancing acts. The major difficulties are: work-play; work-family and business-personal relationships. Which just goes to show that if it wasn’t for work everything else would probably just slot into place.

One must achieve balance by finding an expertise in every area of the home. Become a gourmet in the kitchen, a wonderful parent in the living room, a sensitive lover in the bedroom, an erudite wit in the study, an appreciator of nature in the garden, and a creative DIYer all over the house and you might be some way to well-rounded. Of course, the boom in building luxury apartments for the young and dynamic makes this gargantuan task much more managable by offering just three rooms and 78 channels of TV so you can watch others be wonderful, sensitive, erudite gourmets with beautiful gardens and conceptual art built into the breakfast bar while you grunt between the microwave and the sofa.

Of course, you cannot let your body acquire any of the characteristics you demand for your whole being. The well-rounded individual should be slim and sporty, with the well-toned muscles, perfect skin and robust tan that can best be achieved with an obsessive focus on diet and exercise. Second best seems to be a combination of the Atkins diet and a hot grilling under the sunbed so that you begin to resemble that nostalgic corn snack, the frazzle.

(Apologies to Guy Browning)