Category Archives: Sketches

Shorter pieces more narrowly focused.

On Public Opinion And Policy

One of the principle arguments of Blairites in the Labour Party seems to be that it is the job of the Party to align itself with public opinion. If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of renewing Trident then the Labour Party should be. If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of halting immigration then the Labour Party should be.

It’s funny though, how the argument only gets used when it suits the Blairites. If you point out that 65-28% of the public want to bring back hanging suddenly it all goes quite and very few will argue that If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of bringing back hanging then the Labour Party should be.

Most of those using this argument would also acknowledge that adopting a ‘populist’ strategy of chasing public opinion on EVERYTHING would be doomed to failure. Continue reading


On Deterrence and Trident

Yes deterrence can be a powerful defensive tool. It is often said that Argentina chose to invade The Falklands when they did because they gambled that the UK would not defend the islands. If they had known the lengths we would go to to get the Islands back they probably wouldn’t have invaded. When I was a kid I was going to be beaten up by a gang of skinheads. My mate told them I had seven brothers in the army. I don’t have any brothers. But the skinheads thought I did and left me alone fearful that these magnificent seven Jury brothers would seek revenge if they did me. So I get it. Deterrence can be a perfectly rational and very effective defensive posture.

However, that doesn’t really resolve anything. The questions we have to answer about Trident are:

  1. Does the UK need a nuclear deterrent?
  2. Is Trident an effective deterrent?
  3. Is the cost of Trident proportionate to the deterrence protection it provides?
  4. Does the UK have the resources or geopolitical status to provide such a deterrence?
  5. Should this deterrence be given priority above the myriad calls on the governments economic and financial resources?

In the case of Trident my answer to all of those questions is ‘no’. So despite accepting and understanding the ‘logic of deterrence’ I can, and do, still reject the idea that Trident is a proportionate or effective way of achieving it, or that the UK has the resources or geopolitical status to even be involved in the deterrence game.

A brief analysis of the costs involved in renewing Trident can be found on the BBC website here.

Some things that it might surprise you to discover don’t exist in the material world:

Here is a list of things that it might surprise you to discover don’t exist in the material world:

  • Countries
  • Businesses
  • Corporations
  • Institutions
  • Laws

All these things are abstract legal entities that don’t actually exist in the material world. Rather than physical objects or things they are merely concepts invented by human beings and linked to a set of rules and codes of human behaviour related to power and that are enforced ultimately by brute force by the strong over the weak.

Mountains, rivers and seas exist in the material world. People, animals and plants exist in the material world. Buildings exist in the material world, as does furniture, machinery and equipment (like guns and tanks for example), but an institution like ‘the army’ doesn’t exist because it is only an idea created by human beings – it only exists as an idea in human minds.

Even documents of incorporation that apparantly bring many businesses or institutions into existence, only exist as pieces of paper. A scientific analysis of the pieces of paper would reveal only their chemical make-up, perhaps how they were made and that the paper had scrawls of liquid drawn onto it some time after it was first made.

The writing on the documents, the intellectual conceptual content of the documents, the thing that gives the documents significant meaning to us, has no material manifestation other than the scrawls of ink on the paper. We know, if we can decipher the scrawls, that they are a code invented by human beings to record and communicate human ideas to each other across time and space; i.e. the scrawls of ink on the paper are coded representations of thoughts that otherwise originated in and only exist in human minds.

Perhaps to some the idea that countries and businesses ‘don’t exist’ in the material world will seem ridiculous. But to a rat or a mouse, or a bear or a reindeer, national borders simply don’t exist, these creatures just wander where their needs and instincts take them oblivious to human abstract constructs like ‘borders’. Unless there is a physical fence a border is simply a line on a map, i.e. an abstract representation of human power relationships.

Similarly, you may protest, how can businesses not exist in the material world? Surely almost everything is made by businesses, and sold by businesses, transported by businesses and serviced by businesses? How can they not exist in the material world? Well, have you ever tried to find a business? And I don’t mean find the headquarters or a particular outlet or branch; they are simply buildings, often built for a different purpose, that are temporarily occupied by ‘the business’. No, I mean think about it, how could you ever find ‘a business’? Well you couldn’t could you? B’ecause it doesn’t exist in the material world.

But even if this is true Chris, I hear you cry, then so what? Well, this is an important idea because we are constantly told that ‘businesses create wealth’, that ‘businesses create growth’, that ‘businesses innovate’, that ‘businesses react to the economic climate’ and so on and so on. But as I have already suggested businesses don’t exist so they can’t and don’t ‘do’ anything. No, it is not ‘businesses’ that create wealth it is people; it is not businesses who react to the economic climate it is people who react; businesses don’t innovate or downsize or rebrand or restructure or any thing else! Businesses don’t ‘do’ anything and people do everything, the good and the bad, the kind and the selfish, the greedy and the negligent, it is people who ‘do’ these things and only people.

Schools and Universities don’t educate young people; universities don’t exist in the material world, they don’t ‘do’ anything. It is people who educate young people, people who organise curriculum and people who charge fees.

Hospitals don’t care for the sick; hospitals don’t ‘do’ anything. It is people who order the bandages and clean the floors and care for their fellow men and women, who wipe their arses and clear up their sick… people, not institutions or corporations, people.

So the next time you are given an order by your employer because it is ‘the company’ or ‘the institutions’ policy, remember that what this actually means is that a person or a group of people have given this order, not an abstract entity or a force of nature that no one can control, but a group of real, specific individuals who can be named and identified, have decided they want things done this way.

And the next time you hear a politician banging on about how ‘business’ will save the world remember ‘business’ won’t ‘do’ anything but people might if we give them a chance.



JS Mill’s Cauldron Of Ideas

I’m reading a great Dorling Kindersley illustrated book on politics called…. The Politics Book

It’s an introduction to politics aimed at 16-18 year olds and is beautifully illustrated by James Graham. It is also got me thinking.

The section on John Stuart Mill says this:

“Even when societies received wisdoms were true, Mill argued that it was important to maintain a profusion of ideas – for a true idea to keep it’s vitality and power, it needs to be challenged and probed. This was particularly the case with ideas about society and politics , which can never attain the certainty of mathematical truths. Testing ideas is best done by hearing the views of those who hold conflicting opinions. If there are no dissenters, their views must be imagined. Without this discussion and argument, people will not appreciate the basis of even true ideas, which then become dead dogmas, parroted without any real understanding. Even correct principles of behaviour and morality, when they have been converted into barren slogans, can no longer motivate authentic action.”

In other words, No Dissent; No Democracy.

The section is introduced by this quote from Mill:

“That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”

I would perhaps rephrase the quote to add that this in fact the chief danger of our species. As social animals being part of the group is far more important to most people than being an individual. Combine this with a pathological bourgeoisie fear of conflict and disagreement and we end up with the type of oppressive liberal consensus I posted about the other week, whereby those who dare to say things at odds with the current orthodoxy find themselves demonised, excluded and silenced. History is full of this sort of stuff of course and the social tyranny of the majority can be just as much a tyranny as that of a tyrannical state or capitalist corporation – especially when the outrage of the orthodox can be manipulated by state and corporate power to suppress those who resist that power.

Yet this phenomenon of social tyranny does provide a contradiction for people like myself to contend with. Indeed, this blog is explicitly framed to address this problem – how to reconcile our individuality and diversity with our natures as social animals?

My answer to this is that the only way I can be free is if we are all free, and that to be free does not mean simply to be free from constraint, it also means having equal access to the means of fulfilling our potential. i.e. I am arguing that freedom necessarily implies equal opportunity. I would also say that freedom does not just mean freedom from an oppressive state, it also means freedom from the exploitative and oppressive power of private capital.

Thus just like classic liberals I believe in the primacy of individual freedom but I believe my freedom can only be guaranteed as part of some form of an egalitarian society and I don’t see capitalism or entrepreneurial business as anything to do with freedom but rather as just another form of triumph-of-the-fittest tyranny, not really structurally different from the brutal aristocratic warlords and state Empire builders of previous eras.

In any society those who think and act in new ways (across science, culture, politics and social relations) provide a benefit to everyone (including conformists) because by being willing to take risks they ‘test’ new ways of thinking and doing and the resulting innovations in technology, thought and behaviour that prove to be useful and desirable can be adopted by everyone.

Thus for a healthy society, individuals should be free to think and act according to their own conscience (as long as they don’t harm others). Often this doesn’t happen because of the tyranny of the majority. Which leads to conformity and hampers the testing out of new ideas and ways of life.

Innovation and progress comes about through the thinking and actions of odd-balls, weirdo’s, rebels, radicals, nonconformists, malcontents, bohemians, punks, hippies, geeks, dissenters, nutters, outsiders, loners, mavericks and eccentrics – not conforming, middle class, middle-of-the-road, corporate ‘professionals’.

A Definition Of Managerialism?

I was a delegate at the UCU National Congress this weekend and the word ‘managerialism’ was used over and over again from the podium to criticise both university managers and indeed the full time officials of the union itself.

We all seemed to understand what was meant by the phrase but when I thought about it a bit more and even did a quick bit of Google research I realised that the definition of the term seemed remarkably vague.

The popular concept of ‘managerialism’ appears to share some characteristics with the pejorative use of the term ‘bureaucratic’, but managerialism also seems to imply an inappropriate, ineffective or even dictatorial use of hierarchical power that is not inherent in the concept of bureaucracy. So maybe we could say that managerialism is always bureaucratic but not all bureaucracies are managerialist? But that doesn’t seem quite right either. So I decided to try and work out in more detail what I mean when I use the term ‘managerial’ – which I do quite often. Continue reading

There’s No Such Thing As Markets

Back in 1987 Margaret Thatcher very famously made the following comments in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine.

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Well, surely the same argument applies to the concept of ‘markets’. If the concept of ‘society’ is not legitimate because ‘society’ is just made up of millions of individuals making their individual choices, then surely ‘markets’ don’t exist either?

Indeed, Neoliberal economic theology rests on the proposition that our combined individual choices will inevitably bring about the common good. Which seems to contradict Thatcher’s assertion that our individual choices and decisions remain individual and don’t have collective outcomes. Continue reading

It is all about me after all!

I am a member of my local University And College Union branch committee and put in a great deal of unpaid work to fulfil my union duties. Sometimes fellow UCU members or friends outside of work say things like “you are good” or “we really appreciate what you do for us”. The idea here seems to be that my union activity is something akin to charity work. But I am not active in the Trade Union out of a sense of civic duty or an altruistic desire to help others, or even because I see trade unions as a vehicle for progressive social and political change. I am active in the union because I am fighting for my own dignity at work, my own pay & working conditions and my own autonomy – ultimately my own freedom. My union activity is in fact entirely selfish. I am active in the union because I perceive that my economic interests and my freedom are entirely dependent upon yours. If I am to be truly free, you also have to be free. As a single, lone individual I cannot on my own extend or even maintain my freedom, I can only do that through working collectively with other lone individuals. Continue reading