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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Smoking and capitalism – or Chesterton revisited

I’ve been meaning to blog for a couple of days now on the absurd suggestion by the Royal College of Physicians that people should be banned from smoking in their own cars, regardless of whether they have anyone in the car with them or not. As usual, the protective shield under which the argument advances is an exhortation for people to ‘think about the children’, (as if all parents that smoke are de facto indifferent to their child’s welfare), which gives the room for the physicians to call for a complete ban, accompanied by a sheepish shrug of apology to those without children who might quite like to have a fag in their own car on the way home from a stressful day at work, thank you very much.

One need hardly dwell on the idiocies of such pronouncements – anyone with even half an instinct for liberty could articulate them. One can leave aside, also, the sometimes dubious basis upon which the risks are articulated (there is dispute aplenty on this, from the extent of the danger of passive smoking to the far greater risks faced by other air pollutants, such as car fumes). Lastly, one can also leave aside the economic and cultural arguments: the money smokers put into the Exchequer relative to what they take out (via NHS); the pubs closing as smokers sit at home with a cheap supermarket beer rather than traipse outside and freeze whilst having the odd fag; the gangs of boozed up punters stood outside pubs having a smoke, getting cold and miserable, and invariably ending up intimidating passers-by or slogging it out with each other.

No, aside from all that what really had me irked was the way smokers are persecuted by health authorities far more vigorously than is really warranted, as ‘health experts’ take it upon themselves to direct our lifestyles, rather than treat our maladies. At root this is a new Puritanism, and at the heart of this Puritanism is social snobbery; the young man having a pint of ale and cigarette at his local is scorned upon as irresponsible and uncouth, whilst the metropole having a glass of champers and a cigar is somehow considered chic and sophisticated. The outright ban on smoking in public places is an example, if nothing else, of precisely this snobbery: people in bingo halls and working men’s clubs up and down the land are banned from having a smoke (even if the vast majority of them want to) because some café-dwelling urbanites would like to have a frappuccino free from cigarette smoke.

At this point it is worth bringing in G K Chesterton, who had his own theories about such matters (and talked of the ‘diabolical idiocy that can regard beer or tobacco as in some way evil and unseemly in themselves’). In his book Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, he writes…

Every religion, apart from open devil worship, must appeal to a virtue or the pretence of a virtue. But a virtue, generally speaking, does some good to everybody. It is therefore necessary to distinguish among the people it was meant to benefit those whom it does benefit. Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else. And if you think this unwarranted, I will put before you one plain question. There are some pleasures of the poor that may also mean profits for the rich: there are other pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich? Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.

In the last resort the two things called Beer and Soap end only in a froth. They are both below the high notice of a real religion. But there is just this difference: that the soap makes the factory more satisfactory, while the beer only makes the workman more satisfied. Wait and see if the Soap does not increase and the Beer decrease. Wait and see whether the religion of the Servile State is not in every case what I say: the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it. Many great religions, Pagan and Christian, have insisted on wine. Only one, I think, has insisted on Soap. You will find it in the New Testament attributed to the Pharisees.

Now, imagine that: Puritanism underpinned by a capitalist class driven primarily by concern for the health and productivity of its (current and future) workforce. Perhaps then, if one was cynical and a touch imaginative, one might be inclined to see in the endless costs/benefits analyses of the anti-smoking junta certain strange parallels with Chesterton’s explanation…

Philanthropy, state-charity and a man called Albert

A fascinating story today in the Telegraph, about millionaire businessman and founder of the Kwik Save chain of supermarkets, Albert Gubay, who has given away the vast majority of his fortune to charity in order to ‘fulfill a pact he had made with God’.

In short, devout Roman Catholic Gubay, who had been a penniless sweets-seller in post-war Wales, prayed to God to make him a millionaire, and promised that, in return, he would give back half his wealth when he died. Clearly not one to renege on a promise, Gubay has gone above and beyond his original pact, and left most of his estate to a charitable trust, which will distribute funds each year (around £20million) half of which has to go to the Roman Catholic Church, and the other half to other charitable causes.

Now, this is heartening, not only because it demonstrates a vibrancy of faith amongst riches all too sorely missed in contemporary society, but also because it exhibits a philanthropic impulse that, in the contemporary state vs. society debate, is highly pertinent.

To veer off track for just a second, I remember visiting, as a child, the impressive Bowes Museum over in Teesdale, and reading about how its founders had, to put it bluntly, built the place out of the goodness of their own heart. That is, they were passionate about the arts, they wanted to build a place where they could share this passion with others (John Bowes was a Teesdale man) and so they built the Museum to satisfy that desire. As far as I’m aware, it was never a money-making venture: nothing other than a love for the arts and simple philanthropic zeal guided the project.

And I remember being impressed, not to say a little awe-struck. I mean, that people would spend so much money, give so much time, do so much for others when they didn’t have to, and all for no greater reason than they wanted to share with others what they enjoyed themselves – it all seemed a world away from what I thought I knew about the world.

The thing is Bowes Museum, in the history of our nation, is far from an extraordinary case: from private projects to public services, schools and hospitals to museums and theatres – so much of what we now consider the vital elements of a civilised society came from nothing more than the good will and fraternity of socially-aware (and, importantly, economically able) individuals.

To swing this back to the political point I was hoping to make, the question becomes whether the state, or more accurately statism, can sometimes stranlge this impulse. It has long been contested by the right that the more the state does, the less people feel they have to do for one another, and social relations and associations suffer accordingly. People don’t help one another because, after all, that is the job of the state, and it is what we pay our taxes for. It is important to note that this critique doesn’t only hold true for ‘charitable giving’ so to speak, and there are also robust critiques of welfarism as destructive of social relations, from the Red Tory amongst others. Anyway, the corollary of this is that, the right alleges, in a world rather less statist, people will look after one another, and charitable and mutual associations would form once more, and this would lead to a more vibrant, caring society.

There is something attractive about the simplicity of this vision, not least because it appeals to common sense, and most of us can think of an example where it might be true. Indeed, research coming out of the US would seem to support such a theory: apparently, the liberal-left in America are far eclipsed by their conservative brethren in terms of charitable giving – much to the initial disbelief of the author.

Though, one mustn’t take too superficial a view. After all, to use an imperfect analogy, if a husband comes home and gives his wife his earnings for the week so that she might run the household, then he would be surprised to find his wife asking him for more money when they reached the checkout at the local supermarket. Either way, the conclusion is interesting, not because it shows conservatives to be inherently more charitable (I don’t think it does), but because it implies two forms of philanthropic impulse – the one in which an individual willingly gives to the state a larger proportion of his income, in order that the state might better help those most in need, and the one in which the individual wishes to give the state less, and take upon his own back the dispensation of charity to those who are needy – if and when he sees fit.

There are, however, things that muddy the water here, and which make that simplistic divide little more than a general categorisation, rather than a catch-all description. For example, the effective nationalisation of charity has brought with it an unprecedented ability for the government to dole out funds to charitable organisations that better reflect the social priorities of those in power, rather than the people, nominally at least, doing the giving. This somewhat negates the authenticity of the first form offered above – that is, charity is not really charity if it divorced from the good intents and wishes of the people doing the giving.

Thus, placing charitable giving in the hands of the state can be good, but it also has its down sides – in essence, it allows the government to artificially fund initiatives and charities that, apart from the political will of the state, have little public support. Which, in turn, makes those charities more pliable to the will of the state, or rather the political classes that reside there, and more concerned with making themselves politically acceptable in order to ensure a continuing slice of taxpayer charity – leaving some charitable organisations acutely prone to political posturing (Catholic adoption agencies, anyone?). After all, one wonders if ‘Equalities’ projects, ‘diversity’ training (and the pernicious multiculturalism it has foisted upon us all), or endless ‘minorities’ campaigns, would have had either the scope or influence they have had if it wasn’t for the fact that they rely largely on the fashionable ideas of a woefully inept political class. And one must question, with hindsight, whether such sponsorship is money well spent, or ideas well received.

In this narrow sense, then, perhaps the market may well be a better tool for governing the rise and fall of charitable organisations, because charity will then largely reinforce (rather than subvert) the social, moral and cultural norms of the people of whom they are requesting aid: which, or so it seems to me, is a more authentic account of ‘charity’.

To my own mind, and if I had to choose (either/or) only one model, then I think I would encourage private philanthropy. Either way, in the years to come we might find ourselves presented with the outlying form of an answer, as various sectors of an increasingly disengaged electorate see private philanthropy as an alternative means of protesting against a distant state. For example, those state-maintained Catholic schools who feel more than a little persecuted by recent education legislation, may yet come to recognise that one solution is to cut themselves off from dependence on the state, and set up their own institutions as a potential alternative (although you can bet there would be governmental moves to counter this, especially where such schools refused to teach state-approved views and beliefs – this being an apparent catch of the Conservative free-schools advocacy). Even so,I think this kind of change is already happening, and people are becomingly increasingly aware, and more willing to take the plunge. If only for that reason alone, let’s hope there are many more Albert Gubays to come.

Raging Against the Machine

This is an article I have produced for ResPublica’s blog, the Disraeli Room.

“Without power, you are pointless”

Thus one glimpses the ideological point upon which William Brett’s recent article ‘Bring Back the Machine’ pivots. And, accepting for the moment the immanentised ethic upon which the assertion rests, one can concede a certain coherence to the argument. After all, if society requires the political, and earthly politics is about power, then political engagement of the social realm requires the fetishisation of power. So that, ‘In approaching the concept of community, of the local, it is above all power – who has it and what they do with it – that matters.’

Perhaps, in response, the best one can offer is a slight shrug and a simple rejection of the worldview which underlies such a vision of the social. After all, one could suggest that renouncing power is actually the most powerful thing an individual can do: only, this kind of power-lessness will be rejected by the instrumentalist, as antithetical to the definitions upon which his world system rests. Additionally, one could maintain that a real boundary exists between the political and the social, and that the sovereignty of each territory should be respected – yet this will be countered with the assertion that all territory is underwritten by the power that resides there, which is by its very nature political.

As such, perhaps the best counter-argument is one that merely points toward the consequences of such a structuring of the local. As I argued in my initial piece, radically politicising the civic runs the risk of establishing political structures that more effectively strangle the local, rather than liberate it. And if, in response, one proposes to more intimately engage the local in that very strangulation, then one can hardly be surprised if power is simply idolised, and all at the expense such lofty impediments as the ‘common good’.

In this respect, we are not wholly without precedent. Labour’s embrace of the ‘identities’ agenda, which involves chopping society into often fractious segments and servicing them accordingly, provides the clearest example. Having assiduously cultivated highly politicised locales based on specific group identities, Labour believe themselves to have in some sense sewn up the vote of these identities – ‘community leaders’ become the loose equivalent of precinct captains, their pockets stuffed with taxpayer pounds for this initiative, or that project, or this outreach work. By painting themselves as the natural party of ‘minorities’, and trapping swathes of voters within such identities in the process, Labour have in fact made their own crude attempt to ‘bring back the machine’, and the bloc-vote mentality that underpins it. In essence, this cultivates difference as the very basis of engagement, in order to better service it – and it expects loyalty in return for the investment (hence the drop-jaw incredulity that certain ‘minorities’ might consider voting Tory).

Of course, it might be argued that this is a quirk of a highly diverse society, and that a happily homogenous locale – one geographically constructed, say – could be serviced without the necessary frictions that occur between competing power interests. However, this puts the cart before the horse: common endeavour is the healthy sign of a society that can configure identities, loyalties and desires that transcend the immediate boundaries of the local – a harmonious vision of the good in which all wish to share. An associative civic realm finds ways to spread cords of harmony that can unify manifest differences, as people come together to find common pursuit.

By contrast, the machine segregates the local in order to emphasise difference, since it is the servicing of this difference that guarantees the loyalty of the vote. This emphasis is corrosive, and in it one glimpses the lack of common empathy that characterises the ‘broken society’. As such, we ought to avoid turning the civic realm into a sectarian power play for ghettoised interest groups, and instead encourage an associative realm in which diversity is embraced as a healthy corollary of the system, rather than an absolutised foundation of it. In short, the particular must be rooted in something that transcends it – and naked political power offers no such unificatory appeal.

This is not to deny the problem that Mr Brett diagnoses – to take the example of local bin collection, closer relations between service providers and service users may indeed be desirable, especially where the result is a more efficient service. However, the proposed solution is premised upon a polarised view of the social, in which the service provider remains fatally distinct from the service user. The result is an ‘us-and-them’ social sphere, in which the demand of the machine is for ‘them’ to hold a monopoly on civic power – purchased either through political favour or crude bribery.  Accordingly, society becomes dangerously susceptible to the use, and abuse, of political power. More generally, societas loses its autonomous and historically corrective role, and is subjugated to civitas –  in truth, this is little more than a democratically delivered totalitarianism.

This, it seems to me, is the scenario a correctly configured localism can help us avoid: state monopolies of power can, where appropriate, be allowed to simply melt away, in so doing clearing the space for the green shoots of an associative society to spring forth – a rejection of the omnipotence of the bureaucratised political realm, and an embrace of the organic, associative commons.

Cruddas accuses Thatcher – Labour up for aiding and abetting

Jon Cruddas has an interesting article in the Guardian today, offering some opinions on the toxic legacy bequeathed the nation by Margaret Thatcher, or more accurately her neo-liberal economic approach (Hayek, Chicago School, etc. etc.). As even the quickest glance at the comments will show, the commenters remain unimpressed – they spot the glaring inconsistency: that New Labour have worshipped at the feet of Mammon every bit as much as Margaret Thatcher ever did. Nonetheless he did make a few important points, even if what he sees as solutions others might be inclined to see as exacerbating the problem.

Quick example, Cruddas has a pop at the Housing Act, an initiative which turned many hithertofore dependents into a property owning class, as having helped create a property bubble that helped make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Which is only half true. Leaving aside the fact that Labour have fuelled this bubble enthusiastically as the very basis of the middle-class wealth they have cultivated so assiduously, no-one really doubts that selling council homes was a successful policy. The unsuccessful bit was not building anymore – which, of course, was/is precisely what sustains the bubble.

Further on, Cruddas makes the point,

In 1978 there were 7.1 million employed in manufacturing, by 2008 that had fallen to 3 million. There has been no significant private investment in the deindustrialised regions. They have still not recovered their social fabric or productive economies and are now sustained by government spending.

Agreed. There exists very little wealth or diversity of job markets beyond the M25. The mistake here is to think that the sustenance provided by government spending has necessarily been beneficial in the medium to long term. As a BBCR4 programme explored today, certain towns in the north-east are so dependant on public sector jobs, often at the expense of a flourishing and innovative private sector, that they will be decimated when the inevitable cutbacks occur. Talk about rebuilding social fabric around employment? It won’t be done by having a third of the local populace working in government call centres or information lines, but by helping them develop a genuinely competitive industrial sector, through which a proud community can export their wares around the world.

Lastly, Cruddas makes the important observation (again without accepting Labour’s culpability), that

The Conservative economic legacy is a massive transfer of wealth and power away from the majority of the people to capital, away from the poor to the rich, and away from the country to London. The economy has been financialised at the expense of more equitable productive wealth creation.

Which is patently obvious, though no less important for that. So much political effort and attention has gone into building up London into a world financial centre, providing lots of jobs for middle-class people living in the south-east, that the rest of the country has become downgraded to a series of supplicant regions, devoid of economic autonomy and dependant on London for their own economic and indeed social security (tax receipts etc.). Job markets have become distorted, wealth distribution has become distorted (not just socially but geographically: people in the North quite often simply cannot afford to accept jobs in London), and educational and economic markets have become distorted – all moulded to better service the financial sector and all who dwell within dank grey noose that is the M25.

Whether articles such as this (and related musings from James Purnell) will make a blind bit of difference, I’m not sure, and these kind of ideas are certainly not wholly alien to the Conservative Party, what with their adoption of the Red Tory. However, banking crisis aside, it would be a brave Prime Minister that dared to undermine the one sector within the British economy that has for so many years been the most vibrant, successful and profitable – and upon which reams of government initiatives and programmes are dependant.

But there does seem to be a blossoming realisation that all is not as it could be – that Labour have failed to spread the wealth, and the Conservatives failed to conserve. This can only be a good thing.