The Gorilla in the Room

March 6, 2013 5 comments

Last week I was reading about an experiment in neuroscience. It involved a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which a group of young people passed a basketball back and forth to each other. Midway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into frame and waves wildly to the camera and then walks off again. An audience of viewers watching this video were asked to count the number of times that the ball was passed. Typically about half the viewers had no recollection whatsoever of the man in the gorilla suit. The purpose of the experiment was to examine how the human brain focuses on specific things at the expense of context. My own purpose is humbler: it is a useful and amusing example of how easily people can be distracted from the important things that are happening around them.

Distraction is an idea that is very much at the heart of neoliberal politics of the last three decades, and it is playing a very important role right now. These distractions are multiple and mutually reinforcing and they form what I call the architecture of resentment. The architecture of resentment operates by deflecting emotional energy away from the powerful and towards the powerless. It is the collection of institutional frameworks and rhetorical arguments of the right, and makes heavy use of scapegoating, something I touched upon at the end of last year as being a dangerous and slippery slope.

 

Institutions

Changes to welfare mechanisms over the last few decades have been instrumental in shaping the context of the architecture of resentment. There have been many changes of which we can only examine a couple. The erosion of welfare provisions and the deregulation of the labour market (so-called “worker flexibility”) create the context for deep insecurity – a killer of clear thought if ever there was one. This is standard capitalistic practice: internalise the benefits (profits) and externalise the costs and risks (by pushing them onto workers). The introduction of means-testing to welfare entitlements adds two things to this. First, it stigmatizes those on the “wrong” side of an artificial dividing line: they are made conspicuous by their relationship to the line and by intrusive and humiliating bureaucratic procedures, bringing about the sense that they have been publicly judged to be failures. Second, a deep sense of resentment is created for those who fall just on the “right” side of the line – those who are most like those on the other side of the line but who are disqualified from help. There are few more effective techniques than to set the weak against the slightly weaker. This is a standard “divide and conquer” tactic, neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, a certain corroder of solidarity.

The psychological effect of this divisive strategy is clear, and is illustrative of the general strategy employed in the architecture of resentment. The recipients who are eligible for state assistance are sometimes emotively described, by those who are not, as having a “culture of entitlement”, a term leaked into the public consciousness by the architects of the architecture of resentment. What is typically meant by “culture of entitlement” is that those people think that they are entitled to welfare benefits when they shouldn’t be: maybe they should have to earn their entitlement, and so forth. I have heard this said by quite a few otherwise reflective people, and it is obviously a catchy enough tune. What I believe lies at the bottom of this is actually the opposite: the active force here is not outrage that those others receive those benefits but that this person is barred from them even if they were in a situation where they need help or have earned them. This is the ultimate effect of means testing. This division creates a schism, an asymmetry, an alterity. It is of a kind with the current treatment of public sector pensions and wages, where groups of opposition are fabricated solely in order to inspire and maintain resentment.

 

Rhetorical claims

While the institutional components of the architecture of resentment help to reproduce and expand the basis of distraction, the real meat lies in the rhetoric. The rhetoric is a mixture of catchy slogans (like “the politics of envy”, “culture of dependency”, or, as above, “the culture of entitlement”), as well as more direct claims about groups in society.

Let’s start with the claims. These claims take the form of assertions or stories about groups. At some points in history these claims take the form of racist slogans; at others they deflect attention away from domestic affairs towards outside groups – Muslims, commies, etc. More commonly they refer to vulnerable groups within a society and today the most popular claims are against those receiving welfare support from the state. (Note the mutual reinforcement between these claims and the institutions above: welfare claimants are morally deficient in some way or another and so we must put them through the crucible of shame before granting support).

Sometimes these stories contain elements of truth: the truthful part is rarely interesting or important. Often the claims are more in the mould of urban-myths, wild extrapolations from isolated cases (and usually without a clear understanding of even those cases). What little truth there is in such claims is distorted by the use of emotive and loaded language; marginally truthful data are misrepresented through, again, loaded labelling (the rhetoric of dependency is a common example); a spade is called a parasite, and we cannot understand the nature of a spade if we believe that it is sucking us dry. And sometimes stories are simply fabricated. Reagan famously invented his welfare queen. The UK Conservative party insists on the existence of families that have been on welfare for three generations (a tale they inherited from Blair), although, like the Yeti, not a single bit of evidence has ever been produced nor a single case found. In the last few weeks the UK press have been salivating over a case of supposed “welfare scrounging” involving a woman, her eleven children, and a horse living in apparent profligacy in a supposed mansion. On closer inspection (unsurprisingly not so much covered in the press) it turns out that she was allocated her house (not quite as nice as implied) by a housing group, part of the program of welfare privatisation.

Scapegoating works the better the less that the scapegoated group can respond. So it is unsurprising to find increasing occurrences of hybrid compound vulnerabilities being targeted: the latest in the UK is the notion of “welfare tourism” – our country, apparently, is being remorselessly milked by foreigners moving here in order to receive welfare; a few months ago it was obese welfare recipients; the current obsession with disability benefits is of the same character.

The usual definition of “hate speech” is publications and statements that deliberately lie or misrepresent facts about an ascriptively linked group in order to stimulate ill feeling toward them. By this definition the scapegoating of welfare recipients is clearly hate speech. Welfare scapegoating is the new racism; Barbara Ellen of the Guardian describes “shaming the poor” as the “new bloodsport”. It is hate speech because the claims are very often false. As often as not, the claims are simply the manufactured products of the fertile (and extraordinarily well funded) imaginations of right-wing think tanks, who lack any transparency and represent the views of a tiny, unaccountable, anti-democratic, and invisible elite. Ellen, in her article, refers to a recent report jointly published by a number of British church groups including the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union. The study, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, is to be welcomed and systematically debunks many of the most popular and corrosive welfare myths in Britain today. It addresses such catchy classic hits as “welfare recipients are lazy”, “welfare recipients have an easy life”, and “welfare recipients caused the deficit”. These myths are simply untrue and we have a duty to make sure that people know this.

 

The Politics of Envy

So much for the popular rhetorical claims. What about the slogans? There are far too many to choose from. But in order to give it some decent attention I will focus on just one. Last week I attended a debate on the (de)merits of the UK government’s austerity program, with particular attention to the human rights implications of slashing public spending on welfare programs. One of the defenders of austerity, a member the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, blamed anti-austerity sentiment on the “politics of envy”. This is an old favourite among conservatives. The general idea is that the poor are envious of the success of those better off than them; envy is neither virtuous nor admirable; ipso facto the poor and those who argue for them are not just wrong but also a little bit wicked.

The argument from envy has a long history in conservative thought. It can be found in just about any right-wing thinker. For illustrative purposes I’ll focus on two. The daddy of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was an early and enthusiastic contributor to the “politics of envy” rhetoric.  He tells us that:

When we inquire into the justification of these demands [for economic justice] we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. (Hayek, 2006, pp. 81-2)

…and, again:

In a wealthy community the only justification its members can have for insisting on further advantages is that there is much private wealth that the government can confiscate and redistribute and that men who constantly see such wealth being enjoyed by others will have a stronger desire for it than those who know of it only abstractly, if at all. (Hayek, 2006, p. 88)

…and once more with feeling:

[Unconstrained economic liberty is] a condition of freedom so essential that it must not be sacrificed to the gratification of our sense of justice or of our envy. (Hayek, 1984, p. 30)

Robert Nozick, another demagogue of the libertarian right, is even plainer in his appeals. He devotes many pages of his libertarian these, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the theme of envy, only a sample of which we have space for here. He writes:

Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion? (Nozick, 2009, p. 229)

…and ten pages later he is still going strong:

The envious person, if he cannot (also) possess a thing (talent, and so on) that someone else has, prefers that the other person not have it either. The envious man prefers neither one having it, to the other’s having it and his not having it. (Nozick, 2009, p. 239)

These are mighty big claims (and, I will add, undemonstrated (probably indemonstrable)). But why should we accept such ideas? Much of the best and most influential egalitarian writing comes from people who are, or were, fairly comfortably situated – surely it is implausible that they are all that envious of the wealthiest? Many of them (those that Nozick, for example, is responding to) are accomplished academics and are surely clever enough to have become rich themselves if they so choose? And how can a person be envious on behalf of someone else anyway? Why do conservatives find it so darned hard to accept that these people may be acting on moral impulses wholly different to envy?

And is it not also plausible that it is the wealthy and powerful who are acting out of envy, at least as much as the poor? I don’t think that Danny Dorling is wrong when he describes “the everyday politics of the envy and fear of those who had come to know a little luxury, who wanted much more as a result and who lived in constant uneasy fear of it being taken away” (Dorling, 2010, p. 138).

And, we should ask, is the envy of the poor, assuming it to exist, wholly their own moral failing? The late, great E. F. Schumacher is clear on this:

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not ‘idle rich’, even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practicing greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (Schumacher, 1993, p. 236)

In fact, envy plays a critical (and lamentable) role in capitalist society. It is the oil without which the consumerism that keeps the rich rich would have no grip. Throughout neoliberal thought imitation, emulation and covetousness – envy! – act as drivers for market growth and innovation. Envy lies at the very heart of modern consumerism. We are continually reminded that we are inadequate and that the solution is to buy products x, y, and z if we wish to be functioning wholes like everyone else. It would seem that envy is perfectly fine when directing people to act in the interests of the wealthiest – it is only morally objectionable when it works against them.

We can, and should, turn the “politics of envy” rhetoric on its head. “[E]nvy, resentment, and hatred,” Michael Walzer points out, “…are the common consequences of hierarchical domination.”(Walzer, 2004, p. 130). Envy is not wrong because it opposes inequality; inequality – of power, in the form of domination – is wrong because it produces envy along with a multitude of other evils. Envy is a mark of poison in society – a symptom of a greater problem. We should not seek to punish envy but to relieve it. A true “politics of envy” has the admirable goal of removing the reasons for envy, and limiting the mechanisms that utilise it for personal gain.

 

The Gorilla in the Room

So let’s talk about the gorilla in the room… It has been running around while we have been distracted with the busy work of worrying about non-existent bogeymen: welfare scroungers; welfare dependency; the “politics of envy”; the “culture of entitlement” etc etc etc. What has it been doing while we were busily looking elsewhere? Under the disguise of talk about liberty and state interference, these groups who claim to want to remove “big government” from business have actually done a great deal to get big business into government. We should be clear about what this means. When government intervenes in business – say, in the form of regulation – this is part of, and entirely compatible with, the democratic ideal: as thinkers such as Karl Polanyi have pointed out, government intervention is necessary to legitimate the exercise of the powers of capitalism: it is the safety-valve on private power. On the other hand when business interferes with government – when “money is speech”, when “corporations are people”, both forms of power and both concentrated into the hands of a small and unaccountable minority – then what we have is simply corruption and nothing more. It is ironic that libertarian demagogues have derided government regulation and action by highlighting the risk that some powerful individuals will use the state to garner advantages for themselves; in fact, what has happened is that the efforts to “shrink the state” and reduce government action has simply weakened democracy and brought about that very evil it was supposed to prevent. The state hasn’t been shrunk, it has just been retasked.

A final, somewhat bittersweet, thought for those who have made it this far (attention spans are yet another casualty of the architecture of resentment). All of this places us in a difficult situation. If we address the false claims, the fairytales, the resentment-producing rhetoric, and slogans then we have, in a way, handed a victory to their purveyors. We are necessarily on the back foot and our responses are a rearguard action. It costs them little to produce and spread these narratives. It costs us a great deal to oppose them. The point of the architecture of resentment, as I started with, is to distract us. By investing our time and energy in responding to such nonsense we risk giving them credence while we squander our valuable resources on defensive acts rather than putting them to the better use of formulating solutions to today’s problems. But, nevertheless, I firmly believe that we do have the moral duty of opposing these tactics. We must continue to push back, and we must do so much more firmly than we have done so far: when faced with a cheap slogan or a defamatory “fact” we must demand the evidence in a neutral form, the source of the evidence, and the funders of the sources of evidence. We shouldn’t simply accept the conservative-assigned role of dog-fetching-the-stick: instead we should be beating them with their own sticks. We need to stop letting unaccountable right-wing think tanks control the language of the discussion and we must call out complicity with them wherever we find it. We must stare the gorilla in the room directly in the eyes and point it out to everyone around us.

Works Cited:

Dorling, D. (2010). Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The Policy Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1984). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Constitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Schumacher, E. F. (1993). Small Is Beautiful. Vintage.

Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. Yale University Press.

 

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An Irresolute Year

December 30, 2012 2 comments

At the end of 2011, I wrote about how that year had managed to tally up an extraordinary count of unresolved problems, taking into 2012 a mass of uncertainty. Now, at the conclusion of 2012, what is most striking is how these issues remain pretty much as unresolved as they were a year ago, and the uncertainty is still very much with us. The year has played out like one long musical suspended chord, awaiting the resolution which has failed to come. Greece is still in talks about its debt, markets are still volatile, jobs are scarce, politicians are still harping on pointlessly about the need for growth, “austerity” is still the word of choice among conservatives everywhere, and Capital is still, by and large, on strike.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s end of year message is that the country is making “real progress”, in stark contrast to all the data that says the exact opposite. Of course, if your constituency is the stupidly wealthy, and your goal is to hand over democratic power to an oligarchy, then of course 2012 has been a year of leaps and bounds in ways that I needn’t spell out to anyone in the UK. Cameron’s aristocratic fantasy project of “The Big Society” is still marched out from time to time, and remains identical to Thatcher’s “no such thing as society”, a mandate to relieve the wealthy from their obligations. Ironically, the only actual thing I have encountered this year that even remotely resembled the ideals of “The Big Society” was the “people’s library” of Friern Barnett in North London. Closed down by the council in April due to government spending cuts, it was reopened by members of the Occupy movement, the shelves completely restocked by community donations. A quite extraordinary thing to have seen, and done out of complete opposition to the big society government. In all likelihood, the occupiers will be forced to leave the library in the early new year. Score Zero for society.

One thing that remains the same is the quite successful conservative tactic of blaming the woes of the country on welfare recipients. Never mind that you could load up all those “welfare scroungers” onto a rock and fire them into the sun and you would not only fail to improve the economy but would almost certainly create more unemployment. Never mind that welfare provides huge effective subsidies to business. Never mind that the welfare bill is tiny in proportion to the amount of tax that is lost to the kinds of clever accountancy only affordable by the rich and the corporations. In a hierarchical society, those who are kicked by those above will inevitably kick those below, lacking any path to confront their own oppressor. We’re “all in it together”, except when we are not. We scapegoat, and we lose our freedom. We have already lost far more than we think: it’s never as far as we believe between blaming an isolated and defenceless social group and loading them up on trains to Auschwitz. Lest we forget, Niemöller is always there to remind us:

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

The US has navigated its way through another election year. To the relief of most people around the world they have chosen the status quo of the centre-right rather than continuing their own goose-stepped march towards the precipice of the far right (Romney, in 2008, expressed the view that America’s own Auschwitz at Guantanamo Bay should, far from being closed down, be expanded along with its powers of “interrogation”). As I write, the US sits on the edge of the wholly imaginary “fiscal cliff” but are continuing to happily ignore the much more real “carbon cliff” that may even be behind us now, but is in any case the accepted necessary sacrifice to the god of capitalism. The one small ray of (short-term) light is that Dubya’s tax holiday for the rich is due to expire so maybe they’ll remember that debt can be paid through income (i.e. tax) rather than just further borrowing. Of course, what is politically plausible is mostly determined by the rich, so maybe not…

For me personally it has been a frustrating year, every bit as unresolved as the greater world. Two decades of career pretty much came to an end before February had finished. Circumstances forced my hand there, but it was rather inevitable anyway – there’s only so much cognitive dissonance a person can live with. My subsequent attempts to get on with writing ran into difficulties in the middle of the year as I went through my own existential crises (apologies for the lack of blogging here on that score). There were many reasons for this, not least having to swim in the quagmire of bullshit political and economic illiteracy of the welfare-bashing kind described above. But the year has not been wholly wasted – I have read and learned more than ever before in my life: one other reason the writing dried up was the sheer volume of material I have been trying to absorb, assimilate, and organise in my mind. With the new year coming and my savings dwindling I need to return to paid work. I’d like to try a “Hippocratic” approach to work this time round – to find work that does no harm, and possibly some good. This rules-out my previous lines of work. I will try and find work in the non-profit sector if I can. But we’ll see how it goes.

At this point I’ll sign off and wish you all a happy new year. Hopefully I’ll get bits of writing out to you all a bit more consistently but, as the saying goes, que sera sera.

 

Categories: Politics

Three Random Thoughts

July 23, 2012 1 comment

I’ve not published here for a while so, just to see if anyone is still awake, here are some random thoughts with only the loosest possible relationships to each other…

Random thought #1: as to why I’ve not written here in a while. The last few months I’ve done very little writing at all. I’ve been in an odd mental space. Basically, I seem to have reached a limit with Britain. It’s a bit like waking up one day and not recognising the person you’re in bed with. Britain has seemed quite alien to me lately. We have had a truly awful spring and summer here with record rainfalls and endless cloud cover (ironically today is a truly gorgeous sunny day, and it is no coincidence that this little torrent of words is coming out now). If my understanding of climate science is right then this, give or take, is the new normal in Britain as the Gulf Stream seeks a new home further south. My chemical makeup has it that I need a lot of sunlight and my self-motivation is strongly tied to the weather. So that’s one thing. But more generally I just cannot buy into where this country is heading politically. The economy is well and truly bust and the best predictions I am hearing (not the ones spouted by the government) have the recovery decades, not years, away. And this is on top of being well into the fourth decade of one of the greatest acts of public embezzlement known to man. The Tory government is not even pretending to do anything other than to serve the wealthiest. Meanwhile, they continue the entirely predictable but nonetheless largely fictitious rubbish about welfare fraud, despite the fact that the amounts lost in tax avoidance is many times the total bill paid in unemployment benefits and low-income subsidies. We endure endless rubbish about how the “entitlement culture” has destroyed Britain, justifying the dismantling of anything resembling citizenship, while every effort is made to reinforce the truly dangerous culture of entitlement that is at the root of the current problems. There is potentially a truly great nation in hiding here, but it will have no choice but to remain hidden for the foreseeable future. Britain is in for some dark days and, as fascinating as it is to watch from the philosophical armchair, I’d rather not be on the deck as the Titanic sinks. The upshot of all of this is that I’ve been spending a great deal of my time thinking about moving back to Australia and the likelihood is that this will happen in the near future. It’s been a long and difficult decision to make, and it’s not 100% settled yet, but that is the direction that the wind is blowing right now. Believe me when I say that Australia is very far from politically perfect, but at least the sun shines there from time to time, and that’s better than nothing…

Random thought #2: on the Olympics. Yes, the Olympics are happening in London over the next few weeks and I’ll throw my hat in with the large number of Olympic-sceptics. In many ways, the London Olympics exemplifies the problems that I have with Britain (see random thought #1). It has been described as the most corporatized Olympics ever. I have been up to Stratford a couple of times in the last couple of months, ostensibly to go to the flashy new cinema (most recently last week to see the new Batman film – we’ll come to that in random thought #3), but also to gawk at the spectacle that is the Olympic site. Stratford is a veritable tale of two cities with clearly delineated right and wrong side of the tracks (with the separating line being the actual railway tracks). On the right side of the tracks we first find the flagship Westfield shopping centre (proudly Australian, I might add). Glitz and glamour as far as the eye can see, with all the biggest top-name stores for clothes, watches, and cars, as well as a casino, a hotel, and whatever other tax-avoidance vehicle Sir Phillip Green happens to own. Olympic attendees and tourists are directed through the shopping centre which is the only way to reach the Olympic site. And then, if you’re anything like me and don’t have a ticket, your journey ends with the security barriers. You can see all the fun – you just can’t get to it. And, of course, you can see the McDonalds building nestled in between the stadium and the velodrome. Yes, the spirit of competition and achievement reigns supreme at these games (so long as it is corporate competition and the achievement of lobbyists). Just ignore the tax-breaks that the corporate sponsors are receiving in exchange for having exclusive selling rights on the site, to say nothing of the promotional deals. If one perchance wandered away from the bright lights and went to the other side of the tracks into Stratford proper they would see a different side of things. There you will find the dilapidated town centre with its immigrant and working class populace who will be able to watch the games on the television even though they are only a quarter mile away. But of course, we shall be very careful that you do not wander out on that side…

The games are also likely be the most militarized ever. It is said that the enforcement presence at these games will easily eclipse that from the Beijing games – makes you think, dunnit. We’ve all heard about the rocket launchers on rooftops. Mind you, I’ve not seen any nor was I offered the opportunity to play host to one even though I am within shooting-distance of at least some of the events. But I have had some serious military helicopters flying very low over my home at all hours (including, lamentably 4:30am – thanks guys!). And there is a mighty naval vessel parked just down the river at Greenwich. Last week we had the scandal of G4S who were hired to provide security personnel for the games… and failed, so now we’re calling in the army and the police, and paying for it twice no doubt. The failure of outsourcing here is a timely (and, to my mind, tired) warning about the privatisation and balkanisation that the British government is applying more broadly to the public sector. Meanwhile, in other parts of privatised London, private rent-a-cops are out in force to ensure privatised law and order over private property (i.e. everywhere). So London is hosting a Games that is true to its core nature – it is exclusive, privatised, and fully fitted with the usual “trickle-up” devices, aimed at the enrichment of corporations at the expense of community. It is for the rich and by the rich, although, in true libertarian “Big Society” fashion, the not-so-rich can contribute as volunteers

Random thought #3: pertaining to the new Batman movie. Being a bat-phile, I went to see the new Batman film last Friday as it opened in the cinema near the aforementioned Olympic site. I enjoyed it a heckuva lot. It was truly epic and good fun, and I will see it again before long. Batman is, of course, the most philosophically interesting of all comic book heroes, and some may be hoping that I’ll perform a philosophical analysis of the film. They will be disappointed, at least for today (although they might look at an earlier article here). The blogosphere has been aflurry with articles alternately claiming that The Dark Knight Rises was either a salute to Occupy Wall Street or a love poem to conservatism. Probably the most accurate description I have seen was a forum thread that described the film’s political message as “muddled” which about sums it up for me. There is a beautiful line given to Anne Hathaway and directed towards billionaire Bruce Wayne about how long he though the rich could get away with their profligacy, but that was about as deep as the commentary got to my mind: Bane was no hero of the poor, nor enemy of the rich, but just another power-hungry a@#hole (but a mighty entertaining one and a good deal more so than the real-world ones). A few other themes drowned out the blogosphere over the film. One was the comic-book fanboy tribalism as to whether the film rocked because it wasn’t The Avengers, or whether it sucked because it wasn’t The Avengers. Another was on various plot points on the film (which I won’t discuss so as not to spoil it for those who want to see the film). And, of course, there was the sad and tragic event in Colorado. I won’t say too much on this. The news came out while I was actually in the theatre watching the film. I read it about an hour after which was quite creepy, particularly given the content of the film itself. My heart goes out to the families of the victims. Is the violence in cinema to blame? Probably not (but then there sure are a lot of guns and gun-usage in films when compared to real life – what does this tell us about ourselves?). Those who know me already know my stance on gun ownership. Those that have read some of my writings can surely guess. True, guns don’t kill people – people kill people; but people with guns can do it so much more easily. I have no sympathy for some of the online rantings that I saw claiming that if everyone in the cinema was armed this tragedy wouldn’t have happened. It isn’t 1865 and we don’t live in the Wild Bloody West. Liberal gun ownership leads to escalation, not security and certainly not freedom: if I feel compelled to own a gun because your easy ability to acquire an assault rifle makes me less secure then we are both of us less free. And I have no patience for an interpretation of liberty that holds that people should be free to acquire the instruments of homicide but that universal access to healthcare is a violation of freedom.

Property and Interests

Private property is most effective in advancing the cause of liberty when ownership is closely aligned with primary interests. When the two coincide ownership can protect these interests by securing our ability to act on them. But, by the same token, liberty is eroded when ownership and interests diverge: where a person or group owns the things to which others have a primary interest, ownership becomes an instrument of control, and opportunities for domination multiply. The individualistic market and property model is predicated around a schism between interests and ownership: we produce or own things that others have an interest in to ensure that our own interests are met by others. At its best, it facilitates matching ownership with interest, at worst it keeps them apart and allows the gap to be used as an instrument of control. In part, this is what distinguishes a healthy economy from an unhealthy economy: the former aims to shorten the distance between interests and goods while the latter seeks to capitalise (pun intended) on increasing that distance. This raises a broader question as to whether the libertarian property model is universally suited to uniting interests with ownership, and hence uniquely placed to protect those interests.

Robert Nozick proposes that things come with claims already attached, and this may well be the case. His intent is to refute such institutions as tax-based wealth redistribution and promote a fully-realised private property market regime. But the claims that are attached to the things in the world are often very different to what Nozick imagines, and they may go so far as to exclude the very framework that Nozick wishes to demonstrate. His model assumes that property is about choice: we choose to make things; we choose to transfer things; we choose what to do with things, and so forth, such that everything is thus a result of free choice. The relationship between interest and ownership is only that interests shape our choices.

But this is a very poor model of what goes on in the real world. Choice is not liberty (liberty precedes and shapes choice), and what we agree to and what we would choose do not necessarily coincide. Some choose and others don’t, and some control the things that matter very much to others in ways that negate choice. In the real world we exist in relationships with things – places, activities, people – that have little to do with choice but that constitute our core interests. And these relationships give rise to claims that demand recognition. Nozick cannot be right, if he takes liberty at all seriously, that the claims that attach to property derive solely from the history of choices around these things. Individualised choice may, in fact, actively violate the most pressing claims that are attached to things. Unconstrained transfer rights make the relationship between interests and property very fragile: it only takes one party to transfer away the control over their interests for those interests to be forever compromised.

A property/market model suits some situations, especially where the goods in question are inherently individual, exclusionary, and transferable, and where the interests are transitory: in other words, consumer goods. But a different model, focussed on interests, is a more natural fit in at least some cases and, by aligning interests with ownership, is better suited to minimising domination and protecting liberty and autonomy. In this different model, some or all of the rights that we associate with property flow directly from the interests themselves. These rights flow not from ownership but from association, and so we might call such cases associational property. Associational property is not a matter of individual voluntary choice and transaction but rather derives from inherent relationships. Only changes to the association can change the ownership claims. This model recognises that liberty and autonomy depend on control remaining with the affected parties. There is nothing especially novel about the basic idea here: it is at the heart of what is best in socialism, anarchism, and even democracy. But to a libertarian it is a wholly foreign idea.

Ownership of self is perhaps the definitive case of associational property. It is the most intimate association that we all partake in, and many of the difficulties in libertarian theory come from the attempt to confuse self-ownership with conventional ownership. Self-ownership is rooted in the idea that I have the most interest in the parts of myself. Control of these parts by others is what makes slavery so offensive. I own myself and my constituent aspects simply because they are me. I did not choose to have these legs, ears, eyes, talents, or inclinations: I have relations of ownership to these elements simply because they are the integral parts of my being. Nor can I transfer these aspects to others – at best, I can agree to transfer the benefits of the use of these aspects to others: I can affect the outside world and that might conceivably be translated into transferable property claims. But I can never transfer myself in part or in whole without destroying my integrity. Self-ownership, then, derives from – and can only derive from – the prior fact of our existence, and only by ceasing to exist can we alter that relationship.

Our core interests deviate most from the libertarian individualistic property model when they involve other people. Most of our interests involve plural and complex associations. In some cases assigning controlling ownership rights over these interests to identified individuals may be efficient or practical. But as often as not such allocation is arbitrary and introduces a divorce between interest and control, creating opportunities for exploitation. The natural ownership model for these things is one that is mutual between stakeholders.

One example of this is core public infrastructure. Roads, public transport, utilities and the like are so important to our capacity to conduct our daily lives that this creates claims that are incompatible with those of private ownership: there are things that cannot be done with such items without violating important interests. The owner of a city’s water system cannot simply start pumping lemonade instead of water through the pipes. It would not be within the rights of the owner of a city’s road system to simply dig them up and plant cherry blossom trees. These shared interests create partial ownership claims over such infrastructure. Indeed, this is what we normally mean when we talk about public ownership.

A hugely important topic, to be saved for another day, is one of the most important interests that most of us have: that of the ownership of our productive activities. It is no secret that the gap between ownership and production is immense in its currently dominant form of stocks and shares. This has been a major source of irresponsibility, instability, locally and globally, and a driving force behind growing inequality. For now, I will simply state the conclusion that seems obvious to me: we need to take seriously the notion that the space of ownership of production must change dramatically to be limited to the workers, communities, and, in some special cases, consumers. Another zone of shared interest, again to be deferred in its discussion, is our ecology.

We all have critical stakes in ourselves, in our cities, in our ecologies, and in our workplaces. Regardless of the plurality of stakeholders with interests, any separation of interests from ownership introduces the opportunity for control and domination to emerge. When transferable ownership is superimposed on self-ownership we create the possibility for slavery, exploitation, and human misery; when critical infrastructure is sold-off to remote owners, driven by profit, we lose local autonomy and stability; when our workplaces are owned by volatile and disinterested shareholders the worker’s life becomes fragile and non-autonomous. These are all forms of domination that occur when natural forms of ownership are supplanted by a form that simply does not fit. What we have seen over recent decades is the privatisation of the greater part of public infrastructure, the quiet privatisation of public spaces (replacing rights to public protest with the right to advertise), the widespread imposition of mobile capital, and the enforcement of labour “flexibility” (read as “insecurity”). These all represent compromises of core interests in favour of increased domination. The question to be posed is whether, given the core interests involved, these transfers to private individualised ownership has been anything but a violation of trust.

 

A Poem about the Weather

April 29, 2012 1 comment

Nicotine gum in mouth, breaking the habit
while the great English drought continues apace,
the water falls in torrents
the bus drives through the vast water shortages
and throws it onto the curb, drowning those who wait.

The warnings are of drought
the warnings are of floods
and the two are alike and not in opposition.

I mean not the weather but the money
plentiful and in the wrong places
we can’t afford it
but we need it, we are told, to attract those who can show us the way.

This rising tide sinks all boats, except the luxury yachts.

The habit will kill us, but its so hard to break.

Categories: Politics Tags:

Athena and the New Versailles

April 4, 2012 1 comment

A few weeks ago I went to an interesting talk by author Nicholas Wapshott about his new book on Keynes and Hayek, the two economists who have shaped the dominant views on twentieth century economics. John Maynard Keynes secured his international reputation in the 1920s through the publication of his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. After the First World War, representatives of the British, American, and French governments met in Versailles, just outside of Paris, with representatives of recently defeated Germany. There, they hammered out a treaty outlining reparations to those countries by Germany for the costs of the war. Keynes was a member of the British delegation and wrote his book based on his observations there. He walked away appalled by the terms of the treaty. It was these impressions that he outlined in great detail in his book. He made what was one of the most extraordinary predictions in modern history. The terms of the treaty would, he claimed, create extraordinary poverty, insecurity, and resentment in Germany. The resulting degree of desperation among the German people would make them deeply prone to the less than benign influence of ideologues and demagogues. And this would make a second great war all but inevitable within a short period after the first. Short of actually mentioning Hitler by name, Keynes was exactly right on every point. His prediction was maybe the single most spectacular, audacious, and important one made in the last century. And it has implications that we must take seriously today.

Wapshott, in his talk, vividly painted this picture of Keynes’s arrival onto the public scene. He then went on to make a very interesting point. There was, he claimed, a parallel between what happened after the Great War and what is currently happening now in Europe. Of course, now the shoe is on the other foot and it is Germany that is naming the conditions. In the place of post-war Germany we now have Greece which has been asked (if we can use that term) to accept extraordinary terms of austerity in exchange for a bailout package. This general theme has been on my mind for some time, and it is one that refuses to go away. This week I went to a talk by the renegade Australian economist Steve Keen who made the same point when asked what the options for Greece are: there was a serious risk, he said, that they might vote for a “man with a moustache”. The cradle of democracy is no stranger to dictatorship. Greece is not alone in this danger.

The secret of Keynes’s prediction is that he did what economists are generally loathed to do (and one reason why economic modelling so frequently proves inadequate or even harmful) – he took actual human behaviour into account. People who are afraid and insecure make poor choices and are prone to doctrines that offer quick and easy solutions. They are likely “to listen to ugly voices, and to use their votes and money to give these voices a political platform of increasing influence” (Standing, 2011, p. 1). The oft-quoted saying that those who trade security for freedom deserve and receive neither is too facile: some forms of security are essential if freedom is to exist at all. Desperate people behave irrationally. People who are divided economically can only be united by appeals to their worst natures – their pride, vanity, and prejudice. This is also the secret of social control through the commonly applied method of fear of the “other” (Communists, “Radical Islam”, Homosexuality, Atheism, and heretics). It is here that the apparent dichotomy between equality and freedom is shown so nakedly to be false. The puzzling and contrary shift to the political far right since the banking crisis must be understood in these terms.

It is a curious thing that the “rolling back of the state” by reducing the state’s welfare and regulatory capacities has also involved extending the state’s enforcement capacities. We saw this under Thatcher with the wholesale extension of CCTV coverage of London and around the UK, and the use of naked force against the unions. It is no surprise that the same US government that cut taxes for the wealthiest also introduced the euphemistically named “Patriot Act”. Today, Cameron’s austerity measures and rolling back of state welfare provision is accompanied by serious talk of internet and telephony surveillance and secret trials in the interests of state security. It is no secret that incarceration rates correlate directly to a weak welfare state, with the US leading the way and the UK taking the prize in Europe.

From time to time, in defence of Thatcherism, I am told that the UK was in terrible shape before she took hold of the country. No doubt this was true. It is also true that today’s woes in the UK are a direct “consequence of her peace” – her ideological platform and “solution” of deregulation and privatisation. Hitler achieved an extraordinary rejuvenation of the German economy. He also committed the greatest crimes that humanity has ever seen. The cure can be much worse than the disease. The libertarian stance of the likes of Hayek was that the state is inherently bad and any large state will inevitably lead to the loss of freedom and dictatorship. He used Nazism as the exemplar of this claim. But he mistook symptom for cause and derived exactly the wrong lesson. By defining liberty as absence of coercion libertarians come to the party far too late – this is why I identify freedom in opposition to domination which can be economic as much as anything else. Hitler certainly did use the state to effect great evil. But he could only do so because of the state of the German economy and the desperation of the German people, a direct result of punitive austerity which a healthier state could have avoided. Austerity in a time of depression is not only bad economics – it is bad politics. The big government / small government debate is and always has been entirely the wrong debate. The debate must be about good government / bad government and should talk about representativeness and accountability. Limiting the debate to a matter of size simply begs the question. A small strong state is not a good state. The economic functions of the state are no great threat to liberty – economic liberty is not liberty per se; it is often its worst enemy. But the enforcement function of the state surely is. Healthy public provision provides the weak with a defence both against the state and against the strong who might use the power of the state to harm them. Weakening such provision while strengthening the enforcement capacity of the state is not a recipe for liberty: it is an invitation for the “man with the moustache” to enter the scene.

So to check the score: Keynes – 1, Hayek – 0.

The liberty of the Germans died in Versailles, long before Hitler came to power. It is not yet too late for the rest of us, but we cannot take this for granted.

[Edit] Here is an interview with Steve Keen from late last year – very interesting.

References:

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic.

An Overview of my Argument

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been asked to do a short talk about the book I am writing so I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide a very high level outline of where I’m heading. I’d like to sketch out here in very broad brushstrokes an overall thesis, tying together some of things that have already been discussed here, and leaving for future posts the details of the remainder. Where I can, I will make links here to more detailed arguments that I have made in past posts. The remaining arguments will be regrettably brief but I will endeavour to flesh them as I progress with the book.

The case I am making is against the ideology known as “political libertarianism”. It is closely related to an economic doctrine called “neoliberalism” and the arguments I make will count against both. These doctrines are typical of the “new right” in politics, the motivations of people such as Reagan and Thatcher, but also in practice of the likes of Blair, Clinton, and Cameron. All of these have sought to “roll back the state” and to promote free market capitalism based on variations of these philosophies.

The libertarian argument is, very roughly:
1. Liberty is an absence of coercion, where coercion means physical force or the threat thereof. This is the so-called “negative” definition of liberty.
2. People have the right to liberty. Therefore the rights that people have are limited to protection against coercion. Coercion is only permissible in preventing coercion.
3. Private property can only be transferred between two parties voluntarily. This is mostly free exchange (in a market or otherwise), or in the form of gifts or bequests (e.g. inheritance). Any other mode of property transfer is coercive and therefore a violation of people’s rights.
4. The state should only involve itself in protecting people’s rights. Therefore, the state should limit itself primarily to protecting private property.
5. Taxation and the provision of welfare and services to the members a society is a violation of liberty because it requires taking resources from some to provide to others. Similarly, regulation of commerce, labour conditions, and so forth limit free exchange and, hence, liberty
6. Free market capitalism consists of voluntary exchanges, so a) the free market is the only valid manifestation of liberty and b) the state should support the free market.

In philosophical terms these claims are indefensible. In practical terms they are unsustainable.

Here, as briefly as possible, are the top-level philosophical objections.

The idea that liberty means non-coercion is simply too narrow and does not reflect any reasonable notion of what it means to be free. Freedom is not just something that individuals have. It is a function of the relationships between people in a shared real world. Libertarians conflate liberty with choice, or “revealed preferences”. But we cannot infer freedom from the fact that people choose between some options. People under dictatorships typically go along with it without struggle, and, in that sense, make choices within that context, but they cannot be said to be free. The nature of the options available to a person, and how they are shaped by the choices of others, is an important component of liberty. Arguing for freedom-as-choice, Robert Nozick was able to defend voluntary slavery as compatible with liberty. He could only do so by ignoring the likelihood that a person is very likely not free before they make such an appalling “choice”. A more plausible definition of liberty is “non-domination”. Domination implies that a person or group has significant control over the life options of others. I can dominate you and bend your will to my ends simply by having something you need. Coercion is simply the extreme point of domination and cannot exist without domination already being present. They need not resort to actual coercion to impose this control. People can be perfectly unfree before coercion need be employed (in fact, a recourse to actual coercion might point to imperfect domination). Our interaction with others is grounded in relative bargaining positions, often very asymmetrical, and it is here that we find the spectre of domination.

The idea of rights goes well beyond the prevention of coercion. Rights are social devices that protect us from “standard threats”.  The common right-wing view suggests that rights exist to protect us from the state. This is only half the story. Rights exist to mutually protect us from each other (including but in no way limited to the uses that some would put the state to). This extends the notion of rights well beyond simply preventing us from the coercion of the state. Bargaining asymmetries are an important site of standard threats and a variety of rights may be needed to effect protection.

The notion of private property, in the hands of libertarian thought, suffers from numerous problems. It is common for the ownership of property to be conflated with the ownership of one’s self – Nozick, for instance, segues between objecting to the redistribution of bodily organs, talents, and other personal attributes, to objecting to the redistribution of wealth and material goods. But the two are importantly distinct. Interfering with a person’s body and mind is a very different prospect to interfering with their property. Property ownership is a relationship to the external world. It is, importantly, a relationship between not just the owner and a thing but all people and a thing.

The property relationship is one of tyranny as much as it is one of freedom. A person’s property defines their own little dictatorship. It is a limit on the freedom of what everyone else in the world can do with that thing. It is not clear that any individual can or even should have such a unique control over any part of the external and shared world. We all need physical resources to pursue nearly all of our goals in life. Exclusive control of some resources that we can use to directly pursue our goals is thus an essential precondition to any reasonable notion of liberty. But property is also held that is not directly needed by a person. We live in a complex world where our goals can typically only be fulfilled by cooperating with others. So property can also be used as leverage against people who have the things or skills that we need to pursue our goals. Beyond that, it can simply be used as a coarser lever against others to bend to one’s will. It is here that the prime threat to liberty exists. The question is how much control over the resources needed by others is compatible with liberty.

Property exchange is both subject to, and heavily influenced by its outcomes, asymmetries of bargaining positions. It is not the only component of bargaining advantage but is surely the most important. Other components, like the very important informational advantage, and the ability to develop innate talents, are heavily influenced by property control. The relationship between property ownership and bargaining advantage is the primary contributor to the fact that property tends to concentrate in a small number of hands (anyone who can grasp compound interest can understand this, I think). It is simply not the case, as libertarians claim, that the transfer of property according to some “rules of the game” automatically produces just and fair results – the content of the rules matter very much.

Property rights are, on the whole, instrumental – they exist to serve other, more important, goals that we may have. Clearly they cannot protect these goals if the role of the state is limited to purely protecting existing property holdings. For property rights to be effective in asserting our liberty they must ensure that a) all people have some amount of guaranteed property, both for direct personal use and for exchange, and b) differentials in property ownership do not become so large as to create intolerable differences in bargaining relations. Property ownership, unchecked, contains both the seeds and the mechanism of domination. The protection of unlimited property accumulation is not a defence of liberty but a defence of power. Not only is the redistribution of wealth not necessarily a violation of liberty (or no worse than the violation inherent in defending property rights) – it is a necessary precondition to the preservation of it. Liberty and equality are not at all opposites as is often claimed.

In some cases it is preferable to protect more directly the things that people need rather than leave it to the indirect means of private property ownership and the markets. Provision of rights to health care and education fit this bill. Their contribution to bargaining positions makes it important to ensure that access to them is not subject to pre-existing bargaining advantages. The state has a clear role here that goes well beyond simply facilitating open markets.

Finally, the kinds of property that we permit in a society are important. In the not so distant past it was thought perfectly ok to own people as property. Laws in many parts still treat spouses as property in important ways. Today, the dominant form of productive ownership, the investor-owner share/stock model, is effectively the ownership of the productivity of workers (the argument on this is long, and for another day). This is no great advance on feudalism, and the arguments that defend it are flimsy to say the least. The resulting businesses look uncomfortably like authoritarian systems. They are also one of the greatest sources of compounding inequalities. A society built around worker-owned cooperative enterprises is a necessary step to fixing this.

So much for the philosophical case. What, then, of the practical objections? I can only discuss a couple of points here, but these are especially important.

It is orthodox in right-wing economics that market transactions capture everything of relevance to the world. This is patently false. Every transaction carries potential costs, risks, and benefits to people who are not involved in the transaction. Economists call these “externalities”, or third-party effects. Most discussion limits these to physical effects like pollution (and more recently, climate effects). These are very important and illuminate much in what is wrong with the property and market models. What is much less discussed is what I call “social externalities” – the side-effects of markets on people across a society. These include poverty, unemployment, crime, social instability and many other things. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world risks taken by some are leaked onto others who had no part in choosing them: risks are increasingly social. Growing inequality and, with it, growing disparities of bargaining positions have compounded the problem by making it much easier for powerful actors to shirk risk while retaining the profits (again, compounding their advantages). The banking crisis of 2008 is a dramatic example of this. Both redistribution (understood here not as welfare but as insurance) and regulation have crucial roles to play in this.

Closely related to this is the notion that private ownership ensures the best use and conservation of a resource – neoliberals would say “something that is owned by everyone is owned by no one”. This bears little scrutiny. Capitalism has an appalling track record of conservation and it can only get worse. Markets hold notoriously short-term and myopic views. An individual owning a rainforest will as soon sell or destroy it to make a profit and move on to some other profitable activity with the gains than preserve it for future use. Private ownership denies a voice to many interested parties (including the not yet existing parties of future generations). Self-interest, of the mythical “rational” type or otherwise, has little room for the consideration of others.

Markets may be blind to race, religion and gender (although this claim is much exaggerated – they are very much alive to wealth). But they are also blind to need. Market demand only recognises the presence of purchasing power, and gross inequality also means that the productive powers of a society are weighed heavily towards fulfilling the wants of the best off. The conservative argument is that the worse off benefit because the rich serve as “early adopters” and pay the price of research and so forth, paving the way to luxuries become available to the poor. This claim, like others, is greatly overstated and depends very much on the gap between the wealthy and the poor being reasonably close. (Never mind that it has been overwhelmingly the middle classes who have served this role in the last century). It also ensures that many of the things that poor need that already exist (like healthcare) are priced to suit the rich and kept out of reach of the poor. This has been even more evident in the inflation of house prices by wealthy “speculators” which did much to create the debt conditions leading to the “sub-prime crisis”, and the following financial crisis.

Finally, the overall structure of capitalism has no end-goal. It relies on perpetual growth and a form of economic obesity. Over the last two centuries we have moved from a producer economy to a consumer economy. The mechanism of capitalism has been useful in raising our capacities to meet our material needs. (The jury is out on whether this might have been achieved in other, better, and more sustainable ways). But having met those needs, and then some, the system, relying as it does on ensuring that investor/owners continue to profit, has come to depend on exponentially ever-growing consumption. We have gone from producing in order to consume to consuming in order to produce. While we adhere to a property system that insists that those with more than they need are richly rewarded for allowing the use of their excess wealth it cannot be otherwise. Rather than reap the rewards of improved productivity in better lives, we have sold (and have had to sell) those lives in exchange for things we simply do not need or even want. We have seen, in only a few decades, the growth of planned obsolescence, and increasingly short life-spans for products, along with the encroaching commodification of all aspects of life, from food preparation to the out-sourcing of the raising of our children.  At the same time we have seen the transformation from a public that saved to one that takes on personal debt in order to compete in the anti-social status consumption race, so much so that people are paying off their debts long after they have consumed their goods. This was also important in the lead-up to the banking crisis. The bailouts in 2008 have extended across generations and across all of society the indebtedness required to keep this system going. We work longer and harder than we used to and are, by most measures, less happy. The alternative – living good, sensible, fulfilling lives – cannot work because, to put it bluntly, if the “one percent” do not get their three percent per annum they will take their ball and go home, taking all of our social gains with them. Perhaps we should let them – this is a most sublime form of servitude. Libertarianism has no answer to these questions but goes a long way to explaining how we got here. The growth problem has profound implications for the way that we view society, property, employment, unemployment, the work ethic, and progress. These are just some of the vestigial ideas that past circumstances have left us with that we need to reconsider.

Or else.