Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: February, 2015

War, what is it good for? (Distraction and Disinformation, that’s what).

So the UK government has announced it is to create a brigade of on-line warriors, to wage cyber-warfare, by blogs, tweets and facebook posts, against ‘extremism’. In other words, we are to have our very own Propaganda Corps, whose targets will, no doubt, include domestic audiences.

I find this deeply worrying. There are many reasons why, but the general and fundamental point is this: there has, since the Iraq war, been a complete breakdown of trust between the government and the people. We seem to have war for the sake of war. We feel that we are being lied to. We don’t know who is on which side anymore. We don’t know whether our own government is for us or against us. It’s all smoke and mirrors, all wheels within wheels. And now there is to be a special corps of professional propagandists, who will be paid public money to lie in public. It is very difficult to have any consistent credible policy – and any democratic accountability – under these circumstances.

When the state cannot trust, and is not trusted by, its own people, it is a sign of impending failure.

Why ‘Equality of Opportunity’ is Not Enough

Some people have suggested that ‘equality of opportunity’ is sufficient, and that provided there is an equal chance to climb a ladder to ‘economic success’ then the requirements of a just society are met, such that the resulting inequalities of outcome, being a circumstance of merit, can just be ignored.

I regard such notions as utterly wrong. Inequality of outcome is bad in and of itself.  Here are just some of the reasons why:

Firstly, equality of outcome in one generation is, comparatively and empirically, the best guarantee of broad equality of opportunity in the next; indeed, the very things that create the conditions for equality of opportunity in the future have the ‘side-effect’ of reducing inequality of outcome in the present. (e.g. free school meals decrease educational inequality by ensuring that poor kids are not hindered in their studies by malnutrition, but they also, as a side effect, mean that poor families have a little bit more disposable income right now.)

Secondly, there are baselines beyond which no-one should fall, because to fall below them would seriously undermine human flourishing and well-being. Not everyone can be a successful business person, manager, professional etc. Some people have to wipe elderly arses, empty bins, and clear tables. And here comes the most radical part – the part that makes me, ultimately, on the left: those people matter too. They are precious human beings, with families, feelings, loves, fears, and a God-given life to be lived. An economic system that forces people to compete for ‘success’ in order to enjoy a life of reasonable comfort and dignity, and is not concerned with the well-being of those in humbler stations, is to my mind deeply unrighteous. And that’s before you include people who are just incapable, for various mental or physical reasons, of holding down a job, or who cannot find work because of the overall economic situation – but who still deserve by virtue of their humanity to live decently.

Thirdly, it is about power. If inequalities of economic outcome reach certain levels, other forms of inequality are also produced. We end up in an ‘upstairs downstairs’ society, where some expect always to command and others to obey, and where the same rules don’t apply to the rich and to the poor. Rich man dodges millions in tax, and he gets a nice yacht in the Caribbean; poor man steals a loaf, and he ends up in jail. The poor have no lawyers. So economic inequality is both the product of, and produces, corruption in the state, and corrosion in society.

Fourthly, a competitive-acquisitive society where we are concerned only about ‘opportunity’ and not about outcomes will inevitably lead to a narrowing of the notion of opportunity; basically, unless you put your efforts into self-enrichment through economic acquisition, you will end up on the scrapheap. There is no incentive, in such a society, to develop one’s talents and opportunities in other directions – such as through public service, creativity, voluntary work etc. People have to conform, to play it safe, to keep on trying to climb a ladder that is always being pushed down.

Fifthly, there is a body to evidence to suggest that societies with economic equality of outcome are better for everyone: life is less stressful, less hectic, less difficult. (Some on the right wing seem to think it is wrong to make life easier for others, especially for others who are struggling, but I would ask why anyone would want life to be more difficult that it has to be.) That means that there are fewer of the signs and symptoms of a society ill-at-ease with itself: heart attacks, binge drinking, violence etc.

Sixthly, it misjudges merit.  Ignoring inequalities of economic outcome, assumes that getting rich is a product of merit, whereas this is rarely the case. If anything, most of those who have become rich have shown that such merit as they possess is only merit at enrichment, at not merit at being a good citizen, a good friend, or a good parent. It assumes that the acquisition of wealth is the highest value, to the exclusion of other values. It also assumes that these relative values can be quantified: that a director, for example, can make 400 times as much as a worker, because they are in some sense 400 times ‘better’. No, all they are is 400 times more powerful, and in a position, therefore, to rake off 400 times more of the fruits of labour than the person who actually does the labouring. (Yes, of course, there should be some differential return for expertise, responsibility, difficulty of work, and risk. It’s probably right that a medical doctor – who has to undergo years of training, has life-and-death responsibilities, and may have to work unsociable hours – gets paid more than an office clerk or shop assistant. However, there’s no one person alive who is worth ten times more than any other person, let alone the several hundred times.)

Tough on neo-liberalism, tough on the causes of neo-liberalism!

Some general ideas for consideration:

(1) We should focus more on promoting well-being than promoting ‘growth’.  I’m rather sceptical of ‘growth’ (in the quantitative, GDP sense). Often, growth, conventionally measured, is a sign of failure, not success: if people buy more crap burgers and ‘tonic wine’, then have to be treated for heart disease and stab wounds, that increases GDP, but doesn’t do much for ‘well-being’.

(2) We should recognise that usury, greed and cupidity are sins. Much of what the ‘financial services industry; offers (i.e. opportunities for speculation and usury) is parasitical rather than helpful to the common good. The ‘real economy’ – the economy that makes the goods and provides the services that we actually need – could well be run without for-profit banking. We have already nationalised the banks: all we need to do now is decentralise them and mutualise them, so that each town has its own ‘community bank’ to promote local development on a non-profit basis (i.e. all profits form part of a community fund which is held in trust for the local people).

(3) We should reject the cult of the gigantic in favour of the small. Reject the myth of ‘economy of scale’ in favour of local production, at human scale, for local use.  Change the planning laws, trading hours laws, and employment laws, amongst other things, to encourage small businesses and prevent excessive growth.

(4) The separation of management from ownership in the corporation is dangerous, because it privileges the maximisation of shareholder value over all other considerations. Instead of the corporation, we should encourage the formation of guilds (self-governing associations of independent craftsmen), mutuals, and co-operatives.

(5) ‘Free trade’ produces a race to the bottom, decreasing quality and depressing wages. The solution to this – and to much else besides – is to promote greater self-sufficiency where possible and ‘fair trade’ were necessary.

(6) The economy has to be regulated by democratic institutions, otherwise the rich and powerful will use their position for their own advantage at the expense of others. There have to be regulations in place to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

(7) The economy has to be directed, because the ‘invisible hand’ is unsteady, and does not necessarily produce liveable communities: co-operating with the guilds, trade unions and chambers of commerce, the local state (the Council) should take an active role in planning the economy and promoting the well-being of communities.

(8) Unemployment is bad, but jobs often not much better. As few people should have jobs (i.e. selling their labour) as possible. Instead, as many as possible should have livelihoods (i.e. selling their goods and services, and having personal ownership, either as sole-trader or as part of a mutual or co-operative, of productive property). This means the recapitalisation of the poor, the working class and the middle class – achieved through endowments, non-profit micro-finance and mutuals. It also means enabling small businesses to survive and prosper by removing the unfair advantages of large corporations (see points 2 and 3).

(9) We cannot have a linear model of production and use in a finite world. We have to think in circles: recycling and reusing, living in harmony with our ecology. That means less stuff and more care, less consumption and more use.

(10) Democracy only works best on a small scale. While there would still need to be the election of representatives to a national assembly, the mayoral election and the council meeting should also be important sites of democracy. There are also opportunities, at the local scale, for more participatory forms of democracy – the ‘town hall meeting’ and the ‘citizens’ assembly’. Many public services might be provided much more locally, under the control of local Councils, perhaps acting through guilds, mutuals and co-operatives. There would still be a role for the central State – although I think it would be more of a co-ordinating, enabling, regulating and encouraging role, rather than acting as a direct provider of services.

(11) Society is important. We are not just free-floating random individuals. We are ‘whole persons’, rooted in relationships and in places. We should respect that and encourage it. Much of the traditional social glue – the religious community, the family, attachment to a place – had a stabilising, sustaining, supporting role that not only protected the individual put also gave the individual purpose and direction – we have gained in ‘freedom of choice’, but it comes at the expense of ‘status anxiety’, restlessness, disatisfaction and ‘existential angst’.

(12) Let’s not be too busy. The neo-liberal economy is all about maximisation, rushing, striving, competition. Only a madman would want to live that way. The things in life that really matter take time. We should learn to live more slowly and promote policies that encourage that: let’s have more public holidays and a maximum working week. Rather than letting commerce rule our lives, with its demands for 24 hour shopping and consumption, let’s aim for balance and harmony – we need stuff to live, but if the getting of stuff obscures living then we’ve made a faustian bargain. There should be time for family, time for civic life, and – this is a crucial one – time for silence and stillness. There’s too much noise.

Ideological Musings

Four “-isms” to be challenged:

(i) Economism – the tendency to view events through the prism of economics, skewing society and politics away from other goals and towards a form of quantitative (but not qualitative) growth;

(ii) Consumerism – the belief that fulfilment and happiness comes through the excessive acquisition and ownership of material goods;

(iii) Individualism – the idea that the individual, individual rights and fulfilment are the most central dimension of life;

(iv) Scientism – the belief that the kind of science that helps explain the physical world is the only legitimate approach – and applicable to all spheres.

Together, these create conditions in which many feel a lack of voice, of purpose, of security, of fulfillment, and of well-being; they lead to atomised, competitive societies, to faceless technocratic government, and to rapacious, wasteful, destructive economics. We fill the void with annihilation (drugs, alcohol, fundamentalist religion), distraction (shopping, celebrities) or thrill-seeking.  Somewhere we are losing our humanity, and forgetting the classical/renaissance humane ideal of the integrated ethical and social life.

I am convinced that the only way out of this impasse is to be found in policies, structures and values which:

(i) Replace economism and consumerism with concern for overall quality of life – for our health, well-being, family and relationships.  (Besides, beyond a certain point “more stuff” doesn’t make you any better off, and limitless economic growth cannot be pursued indefinitely on a finite planet.)

(ii) Replace individualism with solidarity, social justice and subsidiarity (i.e. recognising that we are whole people, interconnected and interdependent people, and not mere rational-egoist utility maximisers”. (The constitutional guarantee of civil and personal liberties is still paramount, of course; I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath-water here, only that we recognise there are also social claims and ethical frameworks which should rightly shape, mould and direct individual actions, particularly economic actions.)

(iii) Replace scientism with a holistic humanism (i.e. recognises the role of science in understanding and explaining the physical world, but without trying to over-extend the scientific method into the humanities).

Selma

I’ve just seen the film ‘Selma’. It’s an excellent film and I thoroughly recommend it, although it is not an easy film to watch.

It addresses the issue of a claim for constitutional rights, which is to be pressed through a non-violent demonstration that mounts a great moral challenge to an unjust established order, and which is understood through a theological framework of sacrifice and resurrection. So it might take a while for me process it and to work through some of the issues it raises for my thought and my work.

When I checked my facebook after I got home from the cinema, I saw two things that instantly struck me as relevant. The first was a photo of a victim of violence directed against a young Palestinian man in Israel – an image that looked, for all the world, exactly like the images of beaten black men in Alabama. (It also brought to mind images of students kettled by the police in London during the Occupy and Students Fees marches). The second was a cartoon about voter suppression, which is still happening in many places around the world.

So my immediate reflection is this: one cannot sit back and look at Selma simply as a historical film, as if those things terrible did not continue to happen today. It is very much a film about current realities. The struggle between justice and injustice, right and wrong, dignity and abuse, righteousness and power goes on, and on.

And yet, this is not a cause for hopelessness. Victories are still possible. Progress can still be achieved. Often it seems to get worse before better, but things can and do get better: to take one pertinent example, in 1964 black people in Alabama could not vote; in 2008 they voted overwhelmingly for a black President. So we should be neither discouraged nor complacent, but keep on working and praying for justice, freedom and dignity whenever, and wherever, these things are absent.

On the Parliamentary Accountability of Governments

Scots, especially those of us who favour independence, sometimes forget that the (re-)creation of the Scottish Parliament, while it was a unique turning point in Scottish history, was not a as a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, and did not occur in response to uniquely Scottish circumstances.

Devolution was part of a package of reforms that had been maturing for at least two decades, ever since Lord Hailsham’s description of the UK as an ‘elective dictatorship’. There was a growing sense, even in the 1980 and 1990s, that the harsh and unpopular policies which were being imposed upon the UK by Thatcher were facilitated and enabled by a centralised and majoritarian system of government that concentrated too much power in too few hands, without sufficient checks or restraints.

Scottish devolution must therefore be seen not only in the context of parallel devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland, but also as part of a broad (if half-hearted and half-baked) attempt by Tony Blair’s Government to ‘modernise’ the pre-1997 system of government through such monuments of institutional legislation as the Human Rights Act (1998), the Freedom of Information Act (2000), the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000), and the Constitutional Reform Act (2005).

When the Scottish Parliament was (re-)established in 1999, a deliberate attempt was made to create a working Parliament that would not simply replicate the raucous ritual confrontations of Westminster. Parliament would be more representative, thanks to proportional representation. The power of the executive over Parliament would be trimmed by the institution of a Parliamentary Bureau to manage Parliament’s order of business. The committees would have an enhanced role, with the right to propose as well as scrutinise legislation. The adoption of fixed parliamentary terms would remove the Damoclean sword of dissolution from above the heads of rebellious backbenchers. The plan was to reject not only rule from Westminster, but also the Westminster way of ruling.

The Scottish Parliament has only partially and intermittently lived up to these expectations. Culture is sticker than institutions and despite institutional reforms the ingrained habits of Westminster politics die hard. The period since 2011, in particular, has been characterised by one-party government and by harsh and bitter partisanship, exacerbated by the wholly negative attitude of the opposition parties to the independence referendum.

This exchange (first 10 minutes or so) from a recent bout of First Minister’s Questions shows ‘Westminster-style’ politics at its worst: a game of argumentative tennis between Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, before a braying crowd of backbenchers:

But there is a new and welcome development: a forum in which the First Minister is scrutinised by the Convenors of all of Parliament’s committees. The theatrical differences are important. Unlike the shouting from the podium that characterises FMQs, this takes place in a committee room, from a seated position, and in a conversational rather than confrontational style.


In terms of holding the First Minister to account and providing a forum for the discussion of key issues, this seems a much more sensible way of proceeding than the farcical exchanges of ‘First Minister’s Questions’. We need more of this: less shouting, brawling, ya-boo politics, and more detailed, sensible, cooperative engagement between the Government and committee convenors.

Why cannot this be a weekly or at least monthly event?

Changing the world

In trying to rehumanise society, one of the things that must be resisted is the tendency to use the language of economics in our day-to-day lives. If we talk about ‘value-added’, ‘product’, ‘market share’ and all that – when we are really talking about creating, educating, sharing, then we are allowing the assumptions, the attitudes and the values of neo-liberal economic to shape our lives.

Amongst other things, that makes Michael Sandel cry.

Magic Kingdom

If you haven’t read ‘The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic’ by Dan Hinds, get a copy and read it.

Dan Hinds is possibly the first English writer since Tom Paine to frankly expose how the British Oligarchy works, and how the monarchy, Parliament, the City, the BBC, the security apparatus, and the elite schools all sustain the same corrupt, parasitic, class of financial oligarchs – and why the lack of a proper Constitution is at the heart of it.

This is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read on the state of contemporary British politics. It is short, accessible and passionate. It also shows how the civic republican traditional of thought can provide both a damning critique of existing institutions and a potential way ahead.

He also – rarely, for a London-based writer – understands Scottish independence and what we were trying to achieve in the foundation of a new state.

Seriously, read this book.

Bad Religion

There’s an excellent little article [here] on why contemporary American Christianity would be unrecognisable to 1st century Christians.

But it’s not just Americans, I’m very sorry to say. In Europe and the rest of the world we are not entirely immune to such things. Indeed, the chances are that this brittle, shallow, capitalist, loveless, manipulating, commodified, militaristic, sanitised, hierarchical, xenophobic, doctrinaire, slickly packaged, narcissistic, graceless, hopeless, selfish, money-grabbing, judgmental, corrupt, pharisaical parody of christianity is probably on sale right now at a steeple-house near you. Flee from it.

Of course, this isn’t about finding a ‘perfect church’ or a congregation where everything is precisely as one likes it. (Those things don’t exist.) It’s simply a matter of re-assessing and returning to the core of Jesus’ Way . Christianity was supposed to be a commitment to a transformative way of life, not a religion, and the Church was supposed to be a movement, not a religious institution.

Ruritanian Medievalist Nonsense

New Rule: From now on, whenever you hear or see the words, “the British Constitution”, you have to mentally replace them with “Ruritanian Medievalist Nonsense”.

e.g. 1. “There’s no need to reform Ruritanian Medievalist Nonsense, it works well as it is.”

e.g. 2. “Ruritanian Medievalist Nonsense provides stability and continuity.”

e.g. 3. “The Queen has lots of powers, but she does not actually use them, because Ruritanian Medievalist Nonsense says so.”

You get the idea.

(Although, I should add, that it always pains me a little to use ‘Medieval’ in a pejorative sense. We have a lot to learn from the middle ages.)