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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.

Chakrabarti, crucifixes and burqas

Interesting to note the relative calm over the story that Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker who was banned by British Airways from wearing a small crucifix round her neck whilst on duty, lost her appeal at an employment tribunal and is beginning proceedings in the appeal courts today.

As might be expected, however, there has been one vocal backer of Eweida, that coming from the inimitable Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty. She presents a cogent defence, most of which is based upon the opening maxim that it is vitally important to defend ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion from unjustified intrusion and prejudice.’

Which is all very true.

However… I do think things are a little more nuanced than that, and Miss Chakrabarti, in the course of making her case, offers a couple of little nuggets that demonstrate where liberalism often gets its account of ‘freedom’ wrong.

For example, we hear that, as a possible alternative to either ‘elevat[ing] an approved faith to the point of dominant status over all other belief systems‘ (apparently this is what Britain did in its ‘less enlightened times’, and is comparable with the approach of the Taliban), or else denouncing all religions and clamouring for them to be banned from the public sphere, there is a third option, that is ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s.

Now this sounds innocuous enough, but read between the lines and Miss Chakrabarti’s argument presents itself as wholly secularist, not to mention ideologically imperialist. That is, Miss Chakrabarti posits religion as a lifestyle preference, even whilst acknowledging it as an important one, and then offers an alternative, ‘human rights’, as an objective and universal doctrine that necessarily trumps all historical, religious or cultural particularity. Something so tame as ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s,’ reveals the ideological imperialism; Great Britain is the floating subject upon which human rights are imposed, rather than the very lens through which they are understood at all.

Accordingly, I think Shami Chakrabarti has a dogmatic blind spot that leads her to neglect the very social, cultural and ideological contexts that inform her conception of freedom, a chink in the logic that plays out in the rest of the article.  And this blind spot, like that of all liberals, might best be summed up as a projection into universal principle of that which is in essence a very atomistic individualism. For example, we hear,

If we really believe in freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this must include the right to the faith or belief of one’s choice, the right to no faith and to be a heretic. Proportionate limits on this precious liberty don’t arise because a minority causes irritation or even offence. We interfere when someone is harming others, or in the workplace when, for instance, their faith or clothing prevents them doing their job.

Well, yes, of course, that is all very true. But then, at the same time, what if one chooses to understand that little phrase ‘harm others’ through anything other than a wholly individualistic and materialistic (causing physical harm) worldview – for example, what if one believes that liberal relativism cultivates conflicting ideologies that cause harm to the social fabric of the country; could this not be conceived as harming others? And is there really no case to be made that, where an ideology or behaviour undermines those common threads and identities that traditionally united the diverse peoples settled in these isles, that there is, in some sense, a harm committed, that being to the common good?

This crops up again, toward the end of the article, with the snide jibe,

But that is very different from BA stubbornly defending past mistakes or UKIP attempting to steal clothes and voters from the BNP

Now, apart from being achingly banal, and carrying prejudiced undertones (with the chattering classes you can generally assume BNP = white working class), Miss Chakrabarti here neatly demonstrates the argument I have been trying to make. Because against her one might argue that ‘freedom’ is inherently bound up, as a concept, in those distinct social conditions, customs, traditions, and beliefs of the culture in which it is resident. The freedom to wear a burqa in this country is simply not the equivalent of the freedom to wear a crucifix, unless you hypothetically strip away any social and cultural conditioning factors that ought properly to inform the comparison. After all, we are culturally and historically a Christian country, so that wearing a crucifix at work will raise the question of ‘freedom’ in a wholly different manner to that raised by those who wish to indulge in a practice or belief entirely alien to the majority of the host culture. This is not to say that anything different should be banned, by any means: rather, it is to say that refusing to recognise the distinction between the two is simply disingenuous.

For this reason,  Shami Chakrabati is not really defending a Christian’s right to wear a crucifix at all, but is rather defending her own somewhat sterilised account of what freedom looks like.  The defence of the Christian is an upshot of this circumstance, not the aim of it, and it is the ideological foundations of liberalism that are really being zealously guarded.

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.

Politicians check their blindspot – white working class emerges

Well well. All of a sudden the chattering classes have discovered that group of people known as the ‘white working class’. It would seem that, jolted into action no doubt by the rise of the racist BNP, the political classes have started reflecting on some of the things that might have made people so angry in the first place. And John Denham has found (part of) an answer: ‘We must avoid a one-dimensional debate that assumes all minority ethnic people are disadvantaged.’

Now, before those of you who take offence for a living start blathering on, this is not to say that ethnic minorities do not suffer from their own, very serious problems. Rather, it is to say that helping these groups should no longer be a convenient cover for ignoring the concerns and socio-economic problems of the white working class.

Mr Denham’s words are refreshing, and following on from James Purnell’s article the other day, one does wonder if we are beginning to see a the outlines of an internal conflict regarding the future social and ideological direction of the Labour Party. After all, telling a party with a fetish for the minority rights agenda, largely composed along lines of race or sexual orientation, that sometimes there are non-minority groups that are discriminated against too, might well just earn John Denham a cold shoulder or two the next time he troops the halls of Westminster.

Even so, it is a welcome recognition. It’ll be too late for Labour, not least because the problem is larger than a bit of policy tinkering, and is actually part of a wider attack on the normative thoughts, beliefs, culture and customs of the ‘working class’ – a cultural harassment which the illiberal social liberals that dominate the Labour Party have been particularly zealous about implementing.   The Tories, for my money, have yet to truly find their voice on this issue, though I do think they recognise the problem. The fact that they are now being joined by some on the left is encouraging – and might well lead to a much needed reconfiguration of the way the issues are understood.

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.