Dissenting Radical

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

Month: April, 2016

Getting Priorities Right

A local church in my home constituency in Scotland has canvassed the various candidates on three issues: abortion, same-sex marriage and ‘religious liberty’ (by which they mean, I think, religious privilege exclusively for Christians).

These are not the only issues, or even the most important issues, that Christians ought to be concerned about when casting their votes. To focus on these issues is not only to risk provoking the sort of destructive culture-war that gives Christians a bad name, but also to miss out on a much broader and deeper Christian testimony in politics.

What about the candidates views on tackling poverty and economic inequality, protecting human rights, stewardship of the environment, rehabilitation and reconciliation of offenders, preventing war and securing peace, helping refugees?

Are these not issues of manifesting grace? Are these not balm and ointment for the body-politic? Are these not tikkun-olem? Are these not issues that the churches should be pursuing in their scrutiny of candidates?

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Pro-European, but Anti-Federalist

One of the unfortunate things about the EU referendum debate is that it’s hard to carve out a position that is pro-European and yet anti-Federalist: an internationalist position that wants continued Europe-wide co-operation, peace, trade and friendship, but also a democratic position that wants accessible, responsible, democratically accountable government, on a human scale.

The EU has done much good. The advantages of co-operation are many. The individual nation-states as they currently exist seem too small to do without it. They cannot hope to be self-contained or self-sufficient, and so are forced into sharing powers and having open borders if they are to thrive. Unlike Euro-Sceptics, I don’t want to retreat into a closed, backward looking Britain-vs-The Rest enclave that looks accusingly across the channel with disdain at ‘those garlic munching foreigners’, who are simultaneously ‘stealing our jobs’ while ‘sitting around on benefits’.

But unlike Euro-Federalists, I don’t want an EU superstate blindly marching towards ‘ever closer Union’ in every area of life. Sometimes I wonder if ‘Europe’ – the 28 member EU – is too big, too diverse, too divided, too disparate, to ever function as one coherent bloc. How can democracy work, how can sensible and viable policies ever be constructed, how can resources be pooled and managed, across such a wide expanse of territory, history and culture? It seems to me an impossible and pointless task.

I don’t see leaving the EU as a viable option. I fear it would send the UK on a regressive and inward-looking course, and would serve only to weaken the various worker and consumer protections that exist in EU law.

But I do think that the EU needs fundamental restructuring, and the the aim of this restructuring should be to devolve power downwards, so that EU-wide institutions do less.

My idea is that the EU-wide institutions should exist only to ensure the peace and security of the European territory, and to encourage trade (with due protection for labour standards, health and safety etc), and to facilitate voluntary co-operation. Maybe the EU-level would be more like the Council of Europe, mixed with a sort of Euro-NATO. I don’t see a need for a European Parliament or a European Commission. A six-monthly meeting of Heads of Government, a Council of Permanent Representatives and a small Secretariate should do it. One working language (English).

The other powers of the EU would not be returned to nation-states, but would instead be devolved down to ‘sub-EU’ institutions. These would be based on blocs of neighbouring countries that are culturally and historically more similar, that have more values and interests in common, and are at broadly similar levels of economic development.

I propose six such blocs:

1. Holy Roman Empire Bloc: Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria;

2. Visegrad Bloc: Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Baltic States;

3. Nordic Bloc: Denmark, Sweden, Finland (and I bet Norway and Iceland would join);

4. Insular Bloc: Ireland, England-Wales-Northern Ireland, Scotland;

5. Latin Bloc: France, Spain, Catalonia, Italy, Portugal, Malta;

6. Orthodox Bloc: Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus.

Each of these blocs would have its own Commission, Council of Ministers, Parliament etc. They would share powers over a range of policy areas, like the EU does. They might have their own common currencies, mini-schengens, etc.

This would offer a lot of the advantages of the EU, but without the massive democratic deficits, the tower of babel, and the horrible thought that the EU syphons money from poor people in rich countries (as taxes) to give to rich people in poor countries (as pork).

Status Update: Week Seven, Day Five.

1. The baby has been bathed, fed, and is now asleep.
2. I’ve caught up on my work emails.
3. The house is reasonably tidy.
4. The fridge and cupboards are full.
5. We’ve had a hot home-cooked meal in the last 24 hours.
6. We’ve both had enough sleep in the last 24 hours.
7. We’ve even managed to have sex without interruption.
8. The blocked sink and the broken door handles have been fixed.
9. We’ve done our finances and got all our urgent admin up to date.
10. The parts for my model railway have been delivered.
11. The washing machine has broken down, I’m wearing a T-shirt covered in dried baby vomit, and I smell like the back end of a dead badger.
12. Some of the above sentences are actually true. Especially number eleven.

The times they are a-changin’

Two pillars of the right-wing agenda, privatization and free trade, come under critical scrutiny from two pillars of the right-wing agenda, Peter Hitchens and The Daily Mail.

Maybe now, finally, realisation is dawning that we were sold a lie, and that doctrinaire ideological commitment to privatization and free markets, regardless of the consequences or human cost, was a disastrous mistake. Particularly relevant, I think, is that here Hitchens cases his criticism on the corrosive effects of neo-liberal doctrines for those things that social conservatives hold dear: a sense of place and purpose, home, family and community, order and stability, national pride.

It just reaffirms my argument that you don’t have to be a bearded lefty or a smelly hippie to recognise that a dog-eared and discredited textbook of classical economics is no basis on which to govern a country

Forging a new consensus

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that distinctions based on lifestyle, fashion preferences, social attitudes to issues like religion, gender identities and alternative sexualities, consumer preferences, and so forth, are on the whole a distraction from bigger and more important issues. These things divide people superficially into antagonistic liberal and conservative tribes, whose petty squabbles masks the stark reality that 99% of us are being shafted by a rich, corrupt, oligarchic elite, and whose mutual distrust obscures the existence of a common ground that we can probably reach pragmatic agreement on.

My point is that you don’t need to be a horrific lefty feminist with a beard and a cloth cap hand knitted from organic sustainable hemp by a gender queer cooperative in Nicaragua or an androgenous hipster with a fixie-bike, an exotic taste in coffee and mung-bean fetish, to agree on some basic propositions of a decent, humane, civilised social and economic life.

These propositions would include the idea that we need some basic economic security for everyone against the hazards of unemployment, that no-one who works full time should live in poverty, that we should all have access to affordable education and to healthcare when we need it, that the sick and the old should be looked after in dignity, that there’s more to a good society than profit-maximization, that markets need public regulation to prevent abuses and exploitation, that selling public utilities at cut price to parasitic companies who will cost more for a worse service is bad idea, that certain basic civil liberties and human rights should be guaranteed to all, and that pointless expensive foreign wars are best avoided if possible. 

These are things that, I think, hearty, red-blooded, beer swilling, ‘no-nonsense’ conservative minded folks (possibly even those who are slightly racist and a bit homophobic but too polite to mention it) can also get behind.

The only ones who can’t agree with these common principles are pathological oligarchs and a small but well-funded and influential group of doctrinaire libertarian ideologues who are mentally intoxicated by the mostly disproven theories of neo-liberal economics.

What is a Christian?

‘What is a Christian?‘ by Marcus Borg is excellent short summary of the essence of Christianity. I understand it, Christianity is not about ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast’, but about being committed to a certain way of living in Christ – a way that transforms us and repairs the world.

That’s why modern science and a critical interpretation of scripture do not harm my faith. I can accept the fact that much of the old testament is made up of myths and legends, not narrative history and certainly not science, and I can understand that the bible speaks with a plurality of sometimes contradictory voices, and none of that detracts from the centrality of Jesus, his message or his mission.

Those who think that Christianity is about ‘believing the bible’, even to the point of talking snakes and virgin births, and who make such ahistorical fundamentalism the shibboleths of membership in the community of the followers of Jesus, are rather missing the point, and they push people like me – radical, critical, nonconformist, progressive Christians – to the margins. And that’s a pity.

On being a Constitutional Advisor: Some Thoughts, Myths and Misconceptions

Almost all countries in the world have a constitution – defined as a supreme and fundamental law that is harder to change than ordinary laws and that defines the state, organises powers of government between different institutions and branches, declares foundational values and principles, and specifies the rights and duties of citizens.

Constitutions, in this sense, are largely a product of the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions, but spread over much of Latin America in the 1820s and over much of Europe either in the aftermath of the Napoleonic era (Sweden 1809; Norway 1814; Netherlands 1815; Belgium 1831) or after the revolutions of 1848 (Piedmont-Sardinia 1848; Denmark 1849; Prussia 1852).

From there, government by Constitution spread into other parts of the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Romanian Constitution of 1866, the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, the Japanese Constitution of 1889, and the Persian Constitution of 1906, are some early examples of constitutionalism beyond the North American / Western European core.

The rise of constitutionalism has generally preceded the rise of democracy. Within Europe, many countries achieved constitutional government under a limited suffrage, and then expanded the suffrage, gradually transforming constitutional monarchies into democracies (this was the typical pattern in the Benelux countries and Scandinavia). Elsewhere, such as in Latin America, democracy was frequently interrupted by coups or interventionist military dictatorships, or undermined by corruption, but nevertheless a constitutional tradition developed that, over time, came to be relied upon to mediate conflicts between factions of the elite, and on this tradition the Latin American transitions to democracy were able to build.

The decolonisation era in the 1940s-1980s resulted in a massive expansion of constitutionalism across the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. In a small minority of cases, these constitutions actually ‘worked’, in that they performed the sorts of power-organising, rights-protecting, conflict-mediating functions that we expect Constitutions to perform in democratic countries: India (1950) is the most notable of these rare cases.

In most of these newly decolonised countries, however, the constitutions served other, and not necessarily democratic, purposes: the constitution was a way for the regime to advertise itself, to solidify and legitimate its rule, and to communicate its values to the citizens.

Yet, even in situations where the government is clearly autocratic, constitutions usually still have some purpose to them; they can provide, for example, an ordered succession mechanism in a non-democratic regime that avoids coups and civil wars (e.g. some of the Arab monarchies) or can be a means of structured transition from one sort of regime to another (e.g. Myanmar, 2008).

The Soviet-influenced Constitutions were of another type: they didn’t constrain the government, they expressed how the government saw itself. Yet, even then, opponents to Soviet rule in Poland and in East Germany used the terms of these constitutions to, at least, hold them to their own professed norms.

So even when democracy is absent, incomplete or fragile, the stakes in constitutional negotiations are high. There are winners and losers, but it’s not a zero-sum game; there are mutually acceptable compromises that can help ensure peace, stability, a modicum of human rights, and even a bit of good government.

Another misconception is that Constitutions are made once and for all at the foundation of a country. It’s true the constitution-making is a relatively rare event, but it is not unusual for a country to adopt a new constitution after a regime change, revolution, coup, change in boundaries, or other abrupt change. The average life expectancy of a constitution is about 20 years (although, like all averages, that is misleading: a typical ‘successful’ constitution might last 50 or a 100 years or more, but there are a lot that ‘die’ within 5 years).

In addition to these major changes, lots of countries go through periods of ‘constitutional maintenance’, where blocs of amendments are passed. That is actually a fairly common occurrence. Constitution-making is not a one-off event. It’s a continually renegotiated process.

The process of constitution-making is a dance between the Four Es: (1) elites (political party leaders, entrenched bureaucracies, military and judicial elites, financial elites, the media); (2) experts (academics, lawyers, well-informed civil society actors); (3) everyone (members of the public, who might for example have to vote of a constituent assembly or approve the constitution in a referendum); and (4) external actors (the US State Department, foreign aid donors, international corporations). Often these have different and competing interests and priorities. They speak to different audiences, sometimes in different languages.

Our job is to not to be prescriptive (we never say, ‘This is the type of constitution you should have’), but to help those engaged in the constitutional discussion to think more clearly about the range of possible constitutional options and their likely consequences. If you want to know about the merits of presidential or parliamentary systems, about who should have the power to call a referendum, about the design of electoral systems or second chambers, then the role of the constitutional designer is to help provide that information and to work through it with the actors; to help them to reflect, in their own context, on this comparative research. This will hopefully lead to a more informed, more constructive, conversation and better outcomes.

We also spend a lot of time trying to explain why constitutions matter. The problems with accountability, stability, effective governance, public service provision and democratisation might, in many cases, have a constitutional dimension to them. That’s not to say we can fix everything with constitutional change, but it can often help.

Constitution-making is not a static art. Constitutional technologies have developed over the last 250 years, and often these developments have emerged from countries in the global south, which have had to learn how to do constitutional democracy the hard way. So part of our job is to say to folks in Country X, ‘No, don’t just look at the USA or Western European countries, also look at countries with a similar history to your own, in your own region of the world, at at a similar level of development.’

Moreover, constitutional design is not always solely a matter of choice. There is an increasing body of international norms and international human rights law that states have to abide by if they are to be taken seriously. Part of our job is to advise on this side of things.

Incidentally, if you are American, I really recommend reading the Constitution of Kenya: it shows what a Constitution based broadly on American principles (presidentialism, separation of the powers, majority elections, decentralisation) looks like with 21st century constitutional norms and technologies. If you are British, I invite you to read the Constitution of India, to see what a Constitution based on 20th century British principles looks like when written down.

In many cases, officials are not very open to advice. For the most part, they want to know the minimum they can get away with to keep the US State Department, the EU (if they are in the European neighbourhood) and foreign investors happy). Civil society actors, opposition parties, local academics, sometimes the media, can be more receptive – but that’s ok, because what we do, by empowering them, is to help them to engage more forcefully and more critically in the debate, and to put pressure on the government.

Also, at times of constitution-making, governments don’t hold all the cards. Often, they need the agreement of the opposition – both to satisfy formal requirements for ratification or amendment, which typically require a supermajority – and to gain legitimacy for the constitutional project. In such cases, they may be more willing to listen.

I would not say my work (personally) has had much tangible impact, but I think it has had intangible impact. I cannot point to a clause in a constitution and say, “I did that”, but I can point to meetings and discussions where people have left saying, “Yes, I’ve got it, we need to think about this, campaign for this, inform people”. It is a slow and uncertain process.