Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Does anyone disagree with any of this?

Blogging is dead. This one is still dying, slowly. I’ve got a day off and a bit of time to myself for a change.

So, returning to a theme....

How do we do things so that they’re done efficiently and fairly while going with the grain of humanity? We all want good products and services (and we’d probably call them something less commodified than ‘goods and services’).

We want to enjoy making them where possible and we want to have fair access to them once they’re made. Where production is actually enjoyable, or where it confers an elevated social status, we want access to these professions opened out to everyone. It’s both fair and efficient that way.

Of course we want people who make a greater contribution to production to be rewarded where there is any need for either unattractive work or sacrifice, or where we all benefit from the application of a particular ingenuity, aptitude or accumulated experience. We can argue about the proportions that this rewards should take – it can range from an hon-mench on the ‘employee of the month’ board through to a glittering mansion on the hill with all of the attendant yachts and Aston Martins. That would seem to be a legitimate area for political disagreement.

Similarly, if incentives make life better for us all, then we need incentives. In addition, I can’t see any problem with making access to the goods and services conditional upon a willingness to co-operate in the processes that produce them.

This also seems to be a legitimate area for political disagreement. That debate can ask what should happen if someone unreasonably refuses to attend education or training, refuses to turn up to work, refuses to learn the language needed to gain employment or to behave in a way conducive to production, and so on. Who makes judgements on this sort of thing? And what sanctions do ‘we’ apply to ‘them’? Do we starve them? Do we limit their choices?

Do we deprive them of social status, or do we just sigh and blame ourselves for not being ingenious enough to include them in the paradise we've built for ourselves?

Lastly, we want all of this to produce a bearable social environment for us to live in. We want to live and we want to love.

Obviously, we don’t want all of this efficiency and fairness to result in exhaustion or injury for ourselves. We want to be respected as people and we want our contribution to be valued. An absence of war and discrimination are the essential elements.

We also want it all to be sustainable so that we’re not enjoying the fruits of our labour in some toxic swamp or in retreat from rising sea-levels. We want to benefit from this efficient economy. We want convenience and a bit of diversity in our lifestyle. We have our families and our heritage – our identities, interests and friends.

Wherever possible, we want this pursuit of efficiency to use any synergies that are on offer. If you really like trains, being a train-driver should be an option. Leaving aside the two sliding scales here (reward and sanction – both of which probably come from our definition of fairness) on which we all have an opinion, is there anyone reading this who disagrees with anything in this post?

I ask, because listening to people arguing about politics, it seems to me that a lot of people are straining to disagree with bits of this without actually saying so.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Prominent bloggers probably get more obituaries than most, and I don’t think that I can add much to the tonnage of praise and regret that has marked the passing of Norman Geras, late of Normblog.

However, I do have a three-part theory about why Normblog was so important.

Turning off the comments 
Sure – the quality of writing and thinking on the site were pretty impressive. It stands to reason that retired Professor who is on a mission is likely to produce something worth bookmarking. But the site's success can be traced to Norm’s decision not to enable the ‘comments’ function on his blog.

Even if you don’t write about anti-semitism, fielding comments can be a fairly soul-destroying experience. Once you start blogging about the You-Know-Whos, it gets a great deal worse. Norm’s combination of patient rigour and (almost) faultless civility would probably not have lasted long with that additional burden.

A lot of us started blogging to expose our thinking to a critical audience in order to develop our voice. We *needed* the commenters. We'd be depressed if we didn't get them.

Norm didn't have that need. His postings were unusual in that they tended to reflect thinking that was at a more advanced stage of gestation.

Turning off the comments feature on his blog undoubtedly suited Norm, but it created a temporary vacuum that allowed this thinking to take on viral properties.

To either challenge or develop Norm's thinking, you had to set up your own site or comment on the sites of others who linked to him. The need to respond, or to drag a tangent from one of Norms posts brought many of us over the tipping point.

Each new post, sparked by one of Norms, sent dozens of new readers Norm's way and attracted comments of their own.

Norm's politics had some of the properties we find in an Internet meme, or at least, one that works for the people who read newspaper op-eds.

It appealed to the innate fascination that politicos have for 'revisionism', and (treading carefully...) it was a sign of the muddle that the wider left was in at the time that an assertion of rational enlightenment ideas, or a rejection of anti-semitism, made his posts read like revisionism.

Many of us went through a cycle of curiosity, discomfort, reflection followed by the partisanship of the convert. But even for those who didn't, the challenge was compelling.

A good example

Most instances of Internet activism have been about harvesting existing support or giving energy and efficiency to already-existing viewpoints. Norm established what the necessary conditions are for the creation of an online project that actually changes minds.

I actually can’t think of another project that has changed minds as effectively as The Euston Manifesto. With all due respect and apologies to the other people involved, Norm was the one who co-ordinated the thinking.

It was his incremental work that smoothed the rough edges off it. Ideas that are going to gain traction need this kind of streamlining, and by the time The Euston Manifesto was published, it could be said to have created a new model for the promotion of political ideas.

That’s my fourpence worth. On the wider question of ‘political blogging’, October 2013 feels like the end of an era on that one. As the old 'personal blogging' space gives way to the social networks that are displacing it, it may be the case that we will soon be drawing a line under this particular episode and reaching our conclusions.

Has it improved the way we think, and talk about politics? The jury is still out on that one. But Normblog did. It cascaded and catalysed.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

An important aspect of democracy that some don't seem to have noticed

Watching the commentary on recent events in Egypt, and hearing the discussion about the moves to unseat Egypt's elected President, it reminds me of a recurring argument that inevitably follows when someone says that they are in favour of the promotion of liberal democracy.

I've often been asked about what happens when a new electoral process results in an illiberal government. I've been told that "if you promote liberal democracy, for example, in many countries in the Middle East, you create a situation whereby a totalitarian-ish Islamist party can take power".

Surely this presents us with a paradox?

Well... no it doesn't. If you hold an election, and the resulting constitutional settlement allows the winner to abolish, or rig, subsequent elections, then the election was not part of a process that could be described as 'liberal democratic' in the first place.

The reality of having to seek a renewed mandate on broadly the terms that you won the old one - that's a vital part of the covenant of a liberal democracy. It's not an optional extra.

When you create a situation in which everyone can vote to decide who the next government is, you have not created a democracy. You've had an election. It's not the same thing. (John Dewey is well worth reading on this).

I know little about Egypt, and almost nothing about Mohamed Morsi. But unless the Egyptian constitution would not permit him to rig the next election, it's not particularly anti-democratic for him to be overthrown so soon after an election - especially if he's been using his time in office to abolish important liberties.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Heads must roll at the LSE now.

If the LSE had the slightest notion of their role in society, they'd be offering John Sweeney an Honorary Doctorate. It is surely insane to argue that Sweeney and the BBC should not have gone to N Korea because the North Koreans ban journalists from entering the country?

Instead, they whine about how his decision to quietly join one of their tours in order to report from North Korea could have imperilled 'innocent' students and future trips to this sinister and murderous Kleptocracy.

There's an obvious one word answer to the LSE's charges; Diddums.

Or a longer one where you have to point out - to idiots - that their options to expose their students to disgusting propaganda may have been reduced because of a naughty old journalist.

Do the LSE imagine that it is their role to relieve any of their students of their rights to full enquiry, freedom of expression or assembly? That they should ask them to waive their rights or their desire to do these things when they sign up to a trip - and that they collude with the worst form of totalitarianism?

Do they imagine that the North Koreans will now revise their previously open and even-handed approach to how their hellhole is reported?

Surely, it should be a key part of the preparation they give to their students prior to such a trip? To disabuse them of the view that it's acceptable to collude with fascist propaganda. To understand that pleading innocence of this obligation is the essence of the Quisling. To stress that any and all opportunities must be taken to combat censorship of the most brazen kind.

This is a matter that is so simple and clear-cut. For all of the bleating from the LSE about how their students were being endangered (and I doubt they were in any serious way), there's not one word of admiration for the bravery of John Sweeney and the film crew that accompanied him. Had they been exposed on this trip, I suspect they would have found themselves treated very badly indeed.

I hope there are resignations at the LSE following this. And I hope that the entire British media unites behind Sweeney

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Immigration. Some things that no-one seems to be saying.

The Tories have decided to make immigration a cornerstone of their mid-term build up. Electorally-speaking, I suppose there are reasons to do this. Given the perceived (I would argue, overstated) threat from UKIP, and the presence of Lynton 'Dog-Whistle' Crosbie on the team, this is only to be expected.

A few questions:

Firstly, is immigration something that politicians need to worry about for reasons other than electoral gain?

I'd say it is. I buy the 'free movement of peoples is good for the economy' line. I'd also argue that, in the highly devalued currency of what constitutes 'illiberalism', denying people the right to cross borders and live/work where they choose is a good deal more important than a lot of the alleged 'end-of-a-thousand- years-of-history' infringements that liberal commentators are keen to highlight.

I write this with the ongoing Leveson debate ringing in our ears.

As a matter of principle, it remains unstated, I would argue, because it makes a hypocrite of many of the people who selectively use civil-liberties arguments when it suits them.

But, on the other side of the argument, what about some of the poorest people in UK society? Does large scale migration damage social capital? I'd say it does, often very seriously, and that this argument is hugely under-made partly because it hits the least articulate and most poorly-represented people in the UK. Similarly, it hardly makes the labour market a more comfortable place for those same people either - a non-issue if what passes for public debate is anything to go by. Is an argument that the Labour leadership make sotto voce when they want the unions to buy into a slightly tougher line on this subject, but that's the only time I ever hear it. Is there some kind of liberal omertà on this subject? And is that sustainable?

Secondly, does the fact that politicians such as Cameron and Farage are jostling to own this issue create new dangers? Is demagoguery a worry here or is it simply a reflection of sentiment that is already in the country? Does the jockeying in the Westminster Village alter the the way people think? I would tentatively argue that it probably doesn't. Does the way newspapers report it? I'd strongly argue that it does.

Thirdly, the big question: Does the emergence of this issue, along with a few other worrying factors such as the tensions pulling at the EU, and the decline in trust between the people and the various social and capitalist pillars of our society, mean that we're living in dangerous times?

We take our open society and liberal democracy for granted, but is it really going to be something that we all spend all of our lives enjoying? I suppose that, If I'm lucky, I'll get another 40 years with my boots on. My children will get a lot longer I hope. Will that time see my country at war with its neighbours? Will it see another age of informers, secret police, patrolled borders, a real hungry economic collapse and extreme political movements?

In the chapter 'The Fall of Liberalism' in Eric Hobsbawm's 'The Age of Extremes' we see a collapse of liberal institutions throughout much of the globe. I hope you take this prompt to dig it out and read it for yourselves so I won't spoil it for you, apart from to say that he concludes that 'Fascism-as-catalyst' was really very far from being the sole cause of the gathering catastrophe that followed the 1918 Armistice in his view.

Hobsbawm discusses the fiction of 'the people' (one that liberal bourgeois society buys into but that sociologists and politicians often don't) that was tested and found wanting in the 1930s. That is, the people who have an identifiable common interest that can be met - with tensions resolved - by an agreed political process. Now, we haven't seen a slump on the inter-war scale, whatever newspapers try to tell you. Nor do we have the kind of nationalalst tensions we had then, though a break up the EU could fix that quite easily. But The 1930s didn't see migration on this scale either. If politicians are to have a credible policy that restrains immigration effectively, it will involve measures that will serverly strain bourgeois liberalism and leave it at the mercy of populism. It would need proper expensive border control, work permits and various measures to identify people without the correct 'papers'. It would involve internment. Sorry to sound alarmist, be we're talking of camps here - on a scale that we've not really braced ourselves for to date.

Why is no-one discussing any of this? And why do anti-immigration politicians not come clean about the need for ID cards, databases, arbitrary detention, deportations and large-scale surveillance? And why do those of us who want to live in a world where free movement is possible and easy not acknowledge the price that is paid - often by the sections of society that are least likely to vote?

It seems to me to be a very odd debate.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hawks and Doves

Imagine you have two rival organisations. One is a new outfit that you have just created called The Doves. Lovely people! Anyone can join - no barriers, No discrimination. No nepotism. No 'old establishment'. Highly agile and flexible. Very flat democratic structures - anyone can raise an issue and all decisions are taken out in the open. All of your structures are decided democratically. You're a paragon of transparency.

You set The Doves up because you want to challenge The Hawks. The Hawks are invitation-only. Opaque and undemocratic, they look like a cross between The Freemasons and The Illuminati with a bit of Bilderberg thrown in.

See what you did there? You gave The Hawks the sort of gift that they couldn't have hoped for in their wildest dreams. You gave them a weapon they could never have built or bought.

This is why you can never trust a hippy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Journalism needs to develop a collective conscience if it is to survive

I started last Sunday morning in bed, the way I usually start Sunday mornings: Sitting up, reading loads of articles that had been recommended to me by my Facebook timeline during the past week - some blogs but mostly from newspaper sites - on the iPad or my laptop.

The iPad cost about £450 and the laptop cost a good deal more than that. I probably clipped a few things to Evernote from my work PC as well during the week. My WiFi connection costs me over £20 a month..... all in all, tech companies get paid a lot of money by me to make this lovely Sunday lie-in a good one.   

I usually clip articles that I intend to read straight to Evernote (which I pay for) and the only ads I really see are the ones Facebook serve up. Sometimes, if I notice people on Facebook or Twitter mentioning something without linking to it, I'll go over to Google, find out what they're on about and clip the article again for reading, so I do see the odd Google ad as well.  

For these reasons (and not because of any deliberate ad-avoidance) I dont see any adverts that are posted next to the articles. It would be fair to say that I don't pay a penny directly or indirectly to the authors or their agents for any of my Sunday morning reading.  

I rarely pay in any way for the journalism I consume. I get The Times app on my iPad to read on the way to work. I tried The Guardian one but it was so unreliable, I cancelled it.  
 My 'Times' purchase is an ill-considered one - and one that I don't get much value from. If I thought about it, I'd switch to the FT instead as I'm not keen on giving the Murdoch clan much of my tin, but I keep it on mainly because it's a fairly painless way for me to salve my conscience about not paying anything to read newspapers.

People like me are destroying the investment base of journalism. The only economic interaction I have with journalists is that their work nudges up the value that I place upon my iPad, laptop, Evernote and Facebook.

Objectively, people like me are far more vicious censors than any Ministry of Truth or any restrictive social convention. 
At least they allow some journalism to exist with a sustainable economic base. Do I feel bad about it? No. There would be no point in that.  
On the other hand, I would, if journalism as a craft with a collective conscience (and other crafts have these) woke up to the fact that their failure to assert the value of their work needs to be addressed radically.

But until then, there's no point. At the moment, I accept that we have a moral duty to part fools from their money.

Don't get me wrong either. I hate piracy and abuse of people's copyright. I work with film-makers and I know plenty of penurious musicians. I know how much learning, work and craft they put into their product. When some prick digitises their work and puts it on a P2P site - especially when the artist or their agents are either making it available at a price or choosing to exercise their moral rights - I regard this as a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

But newspapers are not filled with such craft. Nor do many of the writers have the chutzpah to demand that their work is valued in the way film-makers or musicians do. It would be a tough job to do if they did. After all, the blogosphere has established over the past decade that anyone can produce what a large slice of what most of the journalistic profession describes as the 'craft' of journalism is capable of producing - and that there are literally millions of people are already doing it in their own spare time.

Opinions are like arseholes - everyone has got one and no-one wants to hear any of them. We can all use Twitter to add our own flavour of cynicism and spin to what other people report. But good journalism - investigation, reporting, genuine educated insight - still needs to be funded. Unless it is, it becomes the exclusive terrain of those who would benefit in other ways from doing this work. As the professions of PR and journalism merge, this is already increasingly the reality here.

Good journalism won't ever be 'crowdsourced' like the Unicorn Cult of Wikipedians imagine it will be. When a 'journalist' copies the 'exclusive' work of a real journalist and reprints it without attribution, a profession with any sense of itself would hound them out of that profession. We're back to that 'craft conscience' issue. The missing component of all of the post-Leveson hand-wringing here in the UK has been journalists putting their hands up and saying "we have collectively failed - we have stood by and watched our profession degrade and it's time we did something about it."

That's the problem. It's not a profession or a craft that has any collective conscience. As such, it doesn't have the legitimacy that it needs to demand that its products are valued. Journalists seem to do little by way of demarcation between themselves and PR people these days. If it did, the profession and its industry would at least have the self-respect to be able to kick back against the scornful undervaluation of their work as much as the music and film businesses have.

But journalism is barely a profession or a craft anymore - except (ironically) the sort of stuff that people bother to clip to Evernote having read it in their Facebook or Twitter timeline.

What to do about this? It's hard to know where to start. You'd expect a craft that had a collective conscience to at least be discussing this. There is no question that the demand for real reporting and insight is larger than ever before. Other industries that have had their demand boosted by the arrival of the Internet have increased their revenue. But as long as it is the convention to give all of the content away to anyone with a browser and to allow search engines to index all of it without charge, no market can ever emerge.

Musicians like Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery have been saying this for some time. Journalists need to start demanding the erection of a paywall around their work. They need to start insisting that Google pays something to index their content - as a single supplier that dominates the market, it exercises monopoly powers here and it should either compensate for the damage that this does to journalists, or be broken up.

It's time for writers to stop being conned into creating demand for tech kit. They deserve a slice of that cash we all spend on hardware / services / WiFi. I don't particularly want to see paywalls, and I don't think that a functioning market will ultimately need them either. But until they exist on all titles that pay journalists and Google have to pay to index what is behind them, no-one is going to incentivise publishers to take them down. There will be no functioning market for journalism until paywalls are at least introduced. Doing so may concentrate a few minds wonderfully.

If such paywalls existed, personally, I'd pay a fair few quid a week to my ISP if they could route me around them. I wouldn't mind paying a bit to services like Evernote for the added value I get from clipped stories.

Newspaper sites could be negotiating deals like this - if they erected paywalls, but at the moment they can't. For some reason, I can't remember the last time I heard a journalist attacking publishers for not creating paywalls. Why is this? Even though good journalism is a valuable craft, perhaps the fact that few people perceive it to be so means that no-one is prepared to make the argument?

The failure to articulate a collective journalistic conscience is at the heart of this problem.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

How will the Tories react to confident forecasts of defeat?

The recent near-consensus (even among Conservative commentators) that the Tories are very very likely to be in opposition after the 2015 election makes this an interesting moment. This is the time that big moves are made.
I'm taking this opportunity to re-post something that I wrote elsewhere a few years ago on Slugger O'Toole about how the Tories made a move to make a coalition with the Lib-Dems possible after the 2005 poll results offered them a mountain that was too steep to climb by 2010. It draw heavily upon a prediction from a very good but now-defunct lefty blog.

I think that this move went almost un-commented upon at the time, but I think there are strong grounds to believe that it was the result of a deliberate strategy that paid off for the Conservatives.
Having shafted the Lib-Dems over PR and a few other things, the Tories behaved dishonourably since 2010. Having done so closes doors for them. Good. 
Read on....

"...the political right in the UK got a lot of things right in recent years without ever taking to the streets with placards – particularly in its understanding of the gamechanging potential of digital media.
Not being privy to their gameplan, I can only sketch it out the way I saw it. One bit of critical analysis I was recently reminded of came from a now-defunct Marxist blog called Socialism in an Age of Waiting. They noted that the Tories’ outlook was very bleak after the 2005, and that – barring an earthquake – it was unlikely that they’d be able to achieve the kind of swing needed to overturn the Labour majority in 2010. They went on to argue that the Tories needed to come up with a narrative that could make it possible for the centre-left populist Lib-Dems to get into bed with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament (pre-Lehmans and the spectacular personal car-crash of Brown’s leadership, this looked like the only foreseeable electoral scenario that could offer the Tories a glimpse of power). Even with the ‘earthquake’, it turns out that their analysis was accurate.
“…an intelligent and adaptable Tory leadership would give some serious thought to courting the LibDems, with a view to forming a grand anti-Labour alliance around policy positions that both parties could sign up to with only a few adjustments, and, crucially, with the enthusiastic support of much of the media for glib rhetoric about “consensus” and “freedom”:
  • a commitment to proportional representation, presented as a matter of fairness (which it would be), but in the sincere hope that it would prevent Labour from ever having a majority again (which it might well do);
  • wholesale privatisation of education, health care, pensions and social housing, to an extent that would make New Labour’s PFI programmes seem positively Bevanite;
  • a lot of earnest-sounding guff about human rights and civil liberties, coupled with little if any reduction in repressive measures, on the shrewd assumption that most people won’t notice the difference most of the time;
  • a commitment to overhaul the EU in an even more free-market direction, neatly balancing Tory Euroscepticism with LibDem populism, and probably in alignment with the trend in other major member states;
  • hostility both to increased immigration and to any further breaches of the “sovereignty” of nation states, thus combining (overt) right-wing little-Englandism with its (covert) liberal-left counterpart, and usefully blocking off any serious challenge from UKIP, Veritas, the BNP and the like; and,
  • given that New Labour will have been in power for 12 or 13 years by the time of the next election, the usual blether about the need for a new start, new faces, new this and that, of the kind that the media will dutifully lap up and regurgitate.
But of course the Tories are the stupid party, and their leaders are neither intelligent nor adaptable – or are they?” (hat-tip: Will Rubbish, who was impressed enough at the time to take a copy of this)
In fact, we have no idea if The Stupid Party ever did fully grasp the favours that were being done for it by it’s more intelligent and adaptable outriders in the blogosphere. They should be grateful though, because a number of important planks were laid between the Tories and the Lib-Dems online – not least in the way that civil liberties arguments were successfully conflated with free market ones. Labour’s managerialist inflexibility was successfully portrayed as authoritarianism (I argued this at length elsewhere at the time). The liberal-left fell for this one hook-line-and-sinker. That the cult of the methodological individualist was used to remind a Lib-Dem party of the L-word that was really only there as a reminder of the party’s bureaucratic heritage. It created the kind of weather that allowed the Orange Book authors to turf out the left-ish Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell and rise to the top of a traditionally socially liberal party."

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2013 predictions

Here are my predictions for 2013:
  1. The number of economists who will be crowing about how accurate their predictions for 2013 were in twelve months time will be, or be close to, zero
  2. Commentary in the mainstream media will continue to be dominated by people who can be relied upon to have a simplistic and polarising view on absolutely everything rather than having any valuable insight on anything
  3. On 31/12/13, the facts upon which public debate are based upon will still be supplied by journalists working under the constraints that have made journalism almost entirely dysfunctional
  4. It will not get any harder for a well-heeled pressure group to dominate the news agenda at the expense of the public interest
  5. Politicians will be no less convinced that their decisions must be dictated to them by economists, the commentariat, churnalists and wealthy pressure groups
  6. The number of people who profess themselves to have been 'turned off politics' will not have decreased by the end of 2013
Happy new year!