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Monthly Archives: January 2010

Freedom to Dominate

A wonderfully written piece here by A. N. Wilson who, whilst not my usual cup of tea, captures the pernicious consequences of dehumanised capitalism, cherished of neo-liberal economists and ‘free-marketeers’ alike, brilliantly well.  As I’m sure you’ll agree, he makes a better fist of articulating the wider problem than Douglas Carswell, for whom the commitment to liberty would appear to outrank any commitment to society at large.

Of course, this all chimes very closely with the economic analysis of a certain Red Tory – writing with Will Hutton here – who himself is heavily influenced by the distributism of G K Chesterton (if you’re interested then perhaps the best place to look is Chesterton’s An Outline of Sanity).

It hardly needs pointing out that Chesterton’s analysis took place in a different world, but the underlying principle remains the same; too few own too much, whilst too many own too little.

Whilst the days might be long gone of hoping to provide everyone with a bit of land and a house of their own as a means of offering genuine security, there is yet nothing at all to say that the idea can’t be moulded to fit the contemporary world: why shouldn’t the obstacles to ownership, those hurdles that stop vast swathes of people entering the market as equals rather than as waged slaves, be slowly broken down? Why shouldn’t the oligarchies that squeeze competition and distort the markets according to their own whims be reigned in? Why shouldn’t markets serve people, rather than people serve markets?

This would be the essence of any modern day distributist movement – not to deny the market, but to let more people get at it, whatever the ‘free-marketeers’ might say.

Miked-up grasshoppers

One of the phrases one often hears is that the rapid leap in media and communications technology, amongst other things, has brought the world closer together, has helped create a ‘global village’, and enabled people to overcome those old boundaries that once proved obstacles to unity.

Which is all very true, and to that extent is to be welcomed.

However, there is another side. And that other side is the ease at which a central model can now be thrust upon once disparate peoples, an imperialistic imposition that leads to an absurdly homogenous trans-cultural orthodoxy. The result is a bloc-culture in which people think the same things, say the same things, believe the same things, and do the same things – in short, clones of one another. Yet in so doing, it leaves behind all those who don’t buy into the vision, even though they may be in the majority – and this is the crucial bit.

Now to bring this back down to the parochial, I think this disconnect is very much in evidence in contemporary Britain today. Some have the distinction as being between the ‘political classes’ and the electorate; others prefer the term ‘cultural elite’; others will plump for the ‘social and political classes’; others still use the term ‘liberal elite’; whilst a great many will use all of the above. The point is, all these are attempts to articulate a keenly felt anxiety that there is, in some hard to define manner, a difference between a certain segment of the population, often prominent in the ‘culture industry’, and the rest.

It is, of course, almost impossible to avoid falling into caricature at this stage, but perhaps the best concrete example of this is the BBC. Now, as I have blogged in the past, I am an unapologetic fan of the BBC. And I consider the allegation against the BBC of being intentionally biased as unfair. Because if there is any bias, then it is really just a reflection of the people who largely comprise it, rather than any intentional decision to be so. And, as Andrew Marr has recognised, there is a cultural liberal bias at the BBC, that is largely metropolitan in outlook, socially liberal, middle-class, very much geared toward younger fashions and trends, and often (perhaps unsurprisingly) aimed at the techno-savvy population that many people where I come from would dismiss as yuppies. In this sense the BBC all too often reflects its own internal make-up, which means it only addresses people just like itself, and fails to recognise that there are many people who are not like that at all. As such, it trades on its left-liberal outlook as normative (how on earth could it think it wasn’t?), and thereby it irritates the hell out of a great deal of people.

Which is a useful illustration of the point I’m trying, not wholly successfully, to explore – does the media and communications boon, whilst welcome as a platform for the flourishing of human relationships, not also contain within it the seeds of social discord? After all, has there ever been such an opportunity, as there is today, to so completely dominate the public forum with just one worldview? As the BBC example was intended to show, often it can lead to a re-enforcement of the hegemony, thereby giving a disproportionate eminence to what may well be a minority worldview. Or to butcher a Burkean metaphor, how much louder the grasshoppers in the field, how much more complete the illusion of their dominance, were they to be linked up to electrical loud-speakers and sub-woofer sound systems?

I suppose the point I am trying (clumsily) to make is that, when new media networks reach so far into people’s everyday lives, and yet are so often merely reflections of a really quite small and distinct cabal at the head of them, it will begin to chafe. Which might well have the effect of pushing people to those nasty little groups on the margins, those groups who ‘listen’, and who trade on the malaise by claiming to offer a different message.

Conservatives and libertarians unite

One thing I have noticed more and more just recently is the tendency of so many to conflate between ‘conservative’ thought and libertarianism.

It is on the blogosphere where the lines are most noticeably blurred, where a close-knit community of conservative and libertarian bloggers tend to find common voice on just about all the defining issues of the day. In general, the format tends to be consistent in its crudeness: an issue crops up, one blogger denounces it as an affront to freedom, other blogs embellish this initial insight, until you have a whole consensus usually premised upon little more than a few swear words and an insult or two thrown at the person deemed to be the villain of the piece.

The consensus is always visible whenever the issue is one of personal gratification: after all, the hedonistic embrace of the individual secured by the ‘revolutionaries’ on the left from the 60’s onwards has been swallowed almost uncritically by many on the right.

But there is a parallel to this, a mirrored image transposed from the private into the public realm, that being the argument that the individual should be free to live their lives unencumbered by anybody else whatsoever, so that the police are all pigs, politicians are all scum, local councils are freedom-hating Hitlers etc etc. Again, the argument is often as crude as ‘they’re all just twats’, and having secured the laughs of the audience, so is the case deemed proven.

Unfortunately, one is often left wondering whether or not it is only this childish rebelliousness that informs the ‘smaller state’ instinct for so many who claim themselves to be conservative: refutation of authority as inherently bad appears to be the only argument, such as it is, ever offered. Having uniformly embraced social liberalism as a waymarker of ‘freedom’, so the difference between the right and left often seem to boil down to only this: the left want to keep the state in order to secure these freedoms, whilst the right wants to radically extend the project, and be done with all structures of authority and restraint whatever.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for Cobbett myself, and I have no great love for an overbearing state – I think it often stifles the flourishing of human relationships, despite its benign intentions. But I do wonder if this cosy consensus between conservatives and libertarians really reflects ‘conservative’ thought at all, or whether it is not rather just a different shade of a radical individualism that has taken root on all sides of the political spectrum.

It was once pointed out to me that it is much harder to build a sandcastle than it is to run around kicking them down.

And it leads me to wonder whether or not, if the battle against statism has been the cause célèbre of the last few decades or so –  a battle Thatcher comprehensively lost, by the way – then will a coherent defence against libertarianism be the ideological battle to come?

The meritocratic race – no place for the sluggish

Reading Next Left’s blog today, I was struck by a passage regarding the problems inherent to any meritocratic structuring of society, and thought I might as well offer a few speculative (and no doubt rather more naive) thoughts of my own.

Now I must confess that, until a few years ago, I could not see any possible objection to the meritocratic ideal. Indeed, I thought it was marvellous – a truly egalitarian system whereby those with talent were no longer held back from achieving what they were capable of achieving. Any opposition would surely be, or so I thought, the desperate cries of an embattled elite trying to defend the terms of their own privilege, intent on securing the ripest fruits for their own harvesting.

Then two things happened, in a relatively short period of time. Firstly, a priest said something to me that put the whole notion in a new perspective – “ah yes, the problem with meritocracy is that those at the top tend to forget who gives and who takes away – humility is lost on them”. Secondly, I stumbled across an article in the Guardian by Michael Young, spelling out what he believed to be the most pernicious consequences of the rise of meritocracy (I must confess that I still haven’t read his full book on the subject yet).

I’ll try and avoid merely regurgitating what Michael Young says (I’m purposely not re-reading the article now in order to try and avoid this happening), not least because you’re all quite capable of reading the thing for yourself and forming your own opinion, but also because I want this blog to be about my own experience of the issue – the consequences as I see them.

Since meritocracy has become the creed of our times, the system has invariably tilted toward those possessed of most ‘merit’ – according solely to the standards set by those who define the system. This entrenches privilege, because ‘merit’ largely becomes a reflection of the things valued by those already at the top, a self-affirming social ladder that merely endorses the priorities of the already empowered. These are the environmental factors Stuart White discusses in the blog post, but the pertinent point is not that meritocracy fails because of a pre-existing lack of ‘equality’, but because it also actively fuels further injustice: those at the top have sufficient power and privilege to tilt the system in their own favour, and hoard opportunities accordingly.

And this is where that priest’s comment comes in – because a self-affirming social structure allows those at the top to write off those at the bottom, a kind of Nietzschean complex whereby those who lose have deserved to lose, and those who win have deserved to win. The issue of governance thus becomes the inheritance of the meritocratic classes, whose job is to uphold the status-quo (what else could they do – let the losers be in control?), and manage the tension between, to use Ferdinand Mount’s language, the Uppers and the Downers. Here the misanthropic impulse emerges – that unmistakable conceit buried at the heart of so many of the social elite, particularly on the intellectual left, who see themselves as enlightened, elevated above ‘the crowd’, a fundamental mistrust of the plebiate that leaves them genuinely disdainful of representative democracy.

Yet it is the flip-side of this particular coin that is most disastrous. For it pools the ‘losers’ of the race together, stripping their number of anybody that might be deemed ‘successful’, and consigning all those ‘without merit’ to communes where perceived failure blots out the last remnants of ambition or aspiration – they attend the same schools, live in the same streets, compete for the same mundane jobs, apply for the same benefits, all similarly rejected by society as failures in the meritocratic race. Society is split in two, and we end up with an underclass that is basically abandoned to itself, where the measure of good governance is the effective management of this dispossessed segment of society. They are written off, socially and intellectually and economically, and so long as nobody starves to death or freezes for want of state assistance then that is all that can be reasonably expected.

This downward spiral of lost ambition and low aspiration is replicated in the state’s approach – after all, being a loser in the meritocratic race is a desperately hard barrier to overcome, and so why demand any different? Accordingly, instead of providing the conditions, environment and opportunities conducive to self-advancement (a much more diverse job market, better education, welfare that incentivises good life choices) it instead merely embraces the social trends, and seeks to alleviate the worst consequences of it, in so doing facilitating more of the same. Consigned to the inevitably of the losers always being losers, the aim instead becomes to mitigate the downfall – and in so doing those at the top exacerbate the problems.

So where does meritocracy sit in all this? Well, we have a perfect storm of conditions that, as society is more and more dominated by the interests of those who tend to be in charge of it, so it continues to be structured along lines incapable of recognising the talents of those ill-suited to the meritocratic race. The role of meritocracy here is, to my mind, to provide the deterministic underpinning that sees no hope of redemption for a group fundamentally ill-at-ease in a society that no longer values their potential contribution. These people are angry, and so they should be, because they are patronised and left to wallow in their own failure by a group of people who have already given up on them.

Things will change, I’m sure; they always do. And in a time of crisis it is always those at the bottom that pull those at the top away from the flames and into safety. Maybe there will always be poor people, losers in the race of life – I only hope there is not always a social philosophy that provides the subliminal justification for it.

Universities worried free ride might be coming to an end

They’re at it again. The Russell Group of leading universities can once again be found prophesying doom if they fail to receive the generous subsidies to which their industry has become accustomed over the past few years.

Apparently, if funding drops, we’re likely to see a ‘devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession’. And why is that? you might ask. Because, ‘We are an absolute cornerstone of British society; the part of the engine that drives the economy of the nation. We supply highly-skilled graduates to the knowledge economy [there are plenty that would hotly dispute this particular claim] and we provide ideas, research and innovation. We do have a special case to make.”

Now clearly, getting beyond mere mischief, there is a perfectly rational case to be made for promoting, and funding, excellence within the university system. It’s just that its advocates might well find a more responsive audience if it weren’t for the fact that the funding which they claim is vital to uphold the excellence of the higher education system is the same money that goes to subsidise students through undergraduate courses such as Surf Science and Technology, or Celebrity Journalism, or Brewing and Distilling.

And no doubt every student and former student in the country would have his or her own unique story to tell about university largesse – whether it be expensive fleets of cars, or little-used and highly expensive media suites, or even just the vast revenue ploughed into recruiting future students in order to secure future funding streams.

The Russell group would, I suspect, try to absolve themselves of such charges, and hint toward the provincial universities as being the main culprits, those doing the same job, though less well, as the old polytechnics used to do. Even so, I’d still be tempted to say: Tough – break up the cosy-consensus and get your own house in order.

Only they won’t. Because like so many other sectors that have become addicted to the no strings attached easy-love of the state, there is now a serious sense of entitlement. And this sense of entitlement appears to be chronically detached from any notion of mutuality, the recognition that this money belongs to the taxpayer, that it comes both with the responsibility to use it thriftily and wisely, and the demand for certain minimum standards. Universities are all too often run as businesses, a cold managerialism quite detached from the notions of social responsibility and service that once pulsed through them.

Some will claim, rightly, that the universities are indeed doing an important job, furnishing the economy with the kind of workforce that will spur the country forward into the new age, that will help the country prosper in difficult times. And in many cases the humble taxpayer will no doubt see the truth of this argument.

But the value of surf scientists and celebrity journalists? I suspect not. Universities will have to cut their cloth along with everybody else.

Purnell: social conservatism and Labour

So James Purnell has joined the list of Ministers and ex-Ministers ‘setting out a vision’ for what will soon become the post-Brown political landscape. In a remarkably frank article, Purnell offered a bold vision that, were it to gain serious traction, would undoubtedly prove divisive, particularly amongst the metropolitan left that has become so dominant in the Labour Party over recent years.

In his analysis of contemporary left-wing thought and practice, Purnell urged the Party to ‘go back to the values of the early Labour movement’, and in so doing find the inspiration, not to mention the ideological resources, for a revivification of the Labour’s flagging fortunes. Indeed, going further, and openly deriding the cold utilitarianism of New Labour governance, Purnell decries the fact that the ‘The words are managerial, the values administrative and the vision technocratic.’

Now, for many on the left, particularly those that might take Purnell’s words to be a barbed analysis of their own political meanderings, the instant response will no doubt be to dismiss him as a closet-conservative, as if this alone is enough to pour scorn on the wisdom of his proclamations. And, in his cautious rejection of authoritarian statism, and his consistent appeals to tradition, to historic values, and to the lessons of history, the charge may well have some justification. The error, however, is surely in thinking that these characteristics make Purnell a foreigner to the cause. What the metropolitan cabal at the head of the Party fail to recognise, as Purnell clearly does, is that there are genuine socially conservative roots at the heart of traditional Labour thinking, and of those communities that have traditionally voted for the Labour Party.

In essence, then, Purnell is dusting off a form of social conservatism that has fallen into disuse on the left in recent years, whilst simultaneously remaining committed to key left-wing critiques of social and economic inequalities, seeking to demonstrate that the two need not be wholly alien from one another. Purnell is clearly confident that such a move would bring the Party back toward the beliefs and expectations of the nation beyond the cultural cloisters of Islington and Westminster.

Accordingly, in a neat demonstration of precisely this, Purnell says, ‘While there are deep conservative elements in the Labour tradition, and we should honour them – particularly in relation to the ethics of work, loyalty and love of place, family solidarity and a respect for the moral contribution of faith – we do not accept the distribution of assets as they are, we do not accept that inherited mega-wealth is deserved, and we do not accept that our rulers are always other people.’

This first half of this statement will, of course, send shocks of horror surging through the vociferous left-liberal metropolitan classes that see in social conservatism the distillation of all that is regressive and uncivilised in contemporary society. I suspect that Purnell calculates this as a risk worth taking, in order to broaden the appeal of the Party beyond the Guardian reading bien-pensants and the rapidly diminishing tribal voters so disillusioned with cultural and social achievements of the New Labour project. In essence, Purnell is seeking to redress the cultural deficit, to bring back in from the wilderness that much neglected traditional voice, and in so doing he is hoping to start speaking the language of the ordinary people Labour need to vote for them.

When looking at the conservative elements Purnell lists as core to the Labour tradition, the unflinching honesty of his article, and indeed the potentially divisive nature of it, becomes clear. On the ethics of work, for example, Labour are finding it a struggle to find a coherent path through the increasing body of evidence and opinion that the welfare system has played its part in dis-incentivising work. Generational worklessness has blighted communities up and down the country, and whilst it would be overly simplistic to pin this entirely on welfare, there yet remains a noticeable silence in the face of the excellent work done by figures such as Iain Duncan Smith MP at the Centre for Social Justice. Certain bolder characters on the left, such as Frank Field, have been willing to grasp this nettle, though beyond individuals there are few signs of any stomach for this particular fight.

On loyalty and love of place, it would hardly be controversial to suggest that this administration has brought with it a culture disdain toward patriotic expression, in which national and civic pride is looked down upon as vaguely anti-social and potentially divisive. Equally, the uncritical embrace of multiculturalism is proving a hindrance, as it comes under unprecedented attack on both a social and an intellectual level. For many, the mere elevation of ‘diversity’ as a transcending characteristic is in reality no more than a demonstration of the unpatriotic temperament of many on the intellectual left, a ‘progressive’ way of saying ‘we don’t really believe in anything at all’.

On family solidarity, in addition to the unintended yet pernicious effects the welfare system has had on family structures, one might evidence the disproportionate fury of many on the left at the suggestion that the couples’ penalty be removed from the tax system. The left all too often seek only to react to the consequences of damaging social trends, without ever offering a convincing response to the charge that these trends can be socially harmful and ought therefore to be addressed. On this note, as Tristram Hunt has convincingly argued, the metropolitan left have pursued an ideological approach to family that has had profoundly unprogressive consequences, and if the promotion of people like Dr Katherine Rake is anything to go by, then one would be forgiven for thinking that this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Finally, on the moral contribution of faith, one could scarcely deny the proliferation of an aggressively secular civic space that, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, treats faith as an eccentricity rather than a core aspect of peoples’ lives. Whether it be Harriet Harman’s divisive Equalities Bill, or the inability of Jewish communities to define their own membership over and above the definitions of the secular state, one can hardly dispute the charge that religion has proved a difficult conversation partner for a government so committed to social liberalism. Indeed, involving different faith communities has often become a PR exercise concerned with demonstrating ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’, even whilst these very terms are the watchwords under which orthodox religious practice and belief is legislated against. This government has managed to gain a reputation, fair or otherwise, of being anti-Christian, and of having created a ‘Catholic vote’ – tags like these will take a long time to shake loose, and the effects will no doubt be felt at the ballot-box.

All of which demonstrates either Mr Purnell’s courage or else his witlessness. However, one is tempted to assume that, as this is a barely disguised rallying cry, Purnell recognises the deficiencies in these areas and is seeking to alleviate them. The question is, will others follow his lead?

UPDATE: two interesting and not wholly unrelated blog posts, one from Working Class Tory here, and the other from Peter Hitchens here.

Islam4UK and the BNP

I wasn’t going to comment on the events regarding Islam4UK and the village of Wootton Bassett, but for want of anything else to write about I’ll set down a few thoughts.

To plant my flag at the outset, and no doubt to the disdain of the ‘libertarians’ amongst us, I ought to state that I think the march should be banned. Not because of the views expressed by Islam4UK, but because of the manner in which they seek to express them.

Now of course, in reply to my position, you’re likely to hear parroted around that most disingenuous of phrases, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, as if this provides the legitimising framework for the intended actions of Mr Choudary and his idiotic chums. It doesn’t – and besides, the phrase is just silly, and I’d be very surprised if even one person who uttered it ever actually meant it.

Because if they did, then the streets would be lined with bodies. Truth is, there are indeed taboos in contemporary society for which the kind of extreme tolerance summed up in that pithy phrase is simply suspended. Indeed, this might even be necessary for the functioning of an harmonious society. The more difficult question is whether the non-negotiables at the heart of the liberal-left worldview reflect the social and moral frameworks of the country at large. I suspect not, hence the wellspring of resentment, and the legitimate concern that the BNP will be the ultimate victors in this saga, popularly proclaimed as being the only ones willing to ‘stick up for the British’.

Which is a tragic and twisted scenario, though no less real for that. And the resentment upon which they thrive is tangible. After all, one cannot help but wonder why, when faced with a bunch of radicalised young Muslim men seeking to deface the dignity and honour of the sacrifice of young British soldiers, who utter treasonous words and incite against the very country that offers them shelter and protection, people who are every bit as offensive as a drunken young chap who once urinated on a war memorial – why do we refuse to act? Why do we hide behind that little phrase that nobody actually wholly believes in? The same people that would clamp-down on free-speech when it involves an orthodox Christian publicly declaring views on homosexual practice can yet sit on their hands as an extreme minority group seeks to march through the spiritual heartland of soldierly sacrifice and piss all over the memories of the fallen.

For which reason, the government should publicly declare that it simply won’t happen. That, however many weasel words are expended in distorting this into an issue of freedom (as if Mr Choudary and co. really care about that), the protest simply will not go ahead. And with that watch the BNP wither, as the rotting carcass upon which they thrive slowly comes back to life.

Corus Teesside – a light on the horizon?

Fantastic news – Gordon Brown is to try and add the muscle of the state to the efforts of resurrecting a deal for the doomed Corus steel plant on Teesside.

Oh no, all you economic Darwinians might think, yet more state interference and state funds aimed at propping up an inefficient business that should be allowed to go the wall, from whence shall emerge from the ashes of the moribund blast furnace the fertile new shoots of industry and innovation.

Which, quite frankly, is unfeeling nonsense.

Naturally, this does not stop people from arguing it. With the standard condescension often perceptible in the mouths of those haughty types seeking to comfort embattled industrial communities, it has been suggested that there may in fact be a silver lining – a new low-carbon industrial landscape, that can flourish and lead the region away from all that stinky old-fashioned work and toward lovely new green technologies. ‘Chin up comrade, see this as an opportunity. You can retrain, it will only take a couple of years. You can claim welfare or work in the local supermarket for £5-something an hour in the meantime. And who needs a holiday or a car anyway? Pride and self-worth be damned, this is business, and you must embrace the future.’

Which, I suspect, is little comfort to many. Told just before Christmas that your job is under threat, that the industry that has provided succour and identity to your family and your community for generations, that pays the bills and puts food on the table, and for which stable employment there is little immediate alternative – in the midst of all this, the thought of a Guardianista seeking to provide comfort with the thought that, just down the road, they are testing roll-up computer display screens… well, I can only imagine what many of the responses might be.

Of course, this is far from suggesting any such future is undesirable. New industry and technology should of course be developed, alongside the traditional strengths of the region, but any transition toward it must occur organically, not as the upside of a scorched earth approach that breaks the will and dignity of whole communities forced into the trap of welfare or menial employment in the meanwhile.

Anyway, I digress. The thing that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and which undermines the neo-liberal argument, is that the wound is self-inflicted, and for this reason I think Mr Brown is absolutely right to pledge governmental support in bringing back to the bargaining table those who walked off with such indecent haste a few months ago.

For you see, according to Christopher Booker (and, being no expert in these things, I shall have to take his account on trust), the idea that the Corus plant is no longer commercially viable, that falling demand has made it something of a white elephant, is complete codswallop. Just as redundancy notices are being served to its workers, so are its owners, the Indian firm TaTa, building a new plant in the Netherlands, whilst simultaneously looking to more than double its steel production back in India over the next three years.

For Booker, the reason for all this lies in the carbon credit scheme, which, when the game is played correctly, will help net TaTa some shiny new steel plants as well as reimbursing them for their new carbon-friendly output to the tune of £1.2 billion or so. As such, Corus Teesside is on its knees, sacrificed as a pawn in a game of carbon trading that has nothing to do with production and everything to do with fraud-ridden ‘climate markets’.

For which reason, the government should of course step in. Having forced British industry to lie prostrate at the feet of the climate lobby, it would seem there is an imperative for the government to then support it through the consequences of the treaties and commitments it has chosen to sign up to. To do anything less would be a failure to protect its people; promises of a brighter, greener future will gain no traction in the dim gloom of a foreboding present.