Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Freedom to be Judgemental

This was an introduction given for WorldWrite's Freedom Babbleon that took place on 19th December, 2020.

A frequent caricature of absolute free speech is that rubbish and unintelligent ideas are given the same credence as insightful and intelligent ideas. Absolute free speech, therefore, invites moral relativism in the market place of ideas. In its place, it is argued that there should be absolutism over what is deemed correct ideas and the suppression of what is often termed problematic ideas. This has recently been put into practise by Ofcom, who argue that speakers who are critical of trans ideology should not be given a platform alongside advocates of trans gender ideas on TV discussions. This is seen as striking a blow against the decadence of relativism in favour of clearly outlined absolutes of high minded opinion. In truth, though, the cancelling out of an opposing view here is the suspension of judgement. It first denies the judgements made by either side of the trans debate or any other debate. And secondly, it denies audiences the capacity to decide which judgement is more convincing. 

We should remember that toleration and free speech absolutism is not a gateway towards an anything-goes-acceptance of nonsense or banal ideas. People should have unrestricted free expression of ideas and lifestyles, but equally audiences should be free to make moral judgements on whether ideas or lifestyles are good or bad, progressive or reactionary. We should tolerate those expressions we hate, but also be robust enough to challenge and condemn ideas that we oppose. It is only through this ongoing dialogue that society develops a collective conscience and furthermore social solidarity. As this debate involves all citizens, a judgemental approach to ideas and lifestyles plays an important role in the intellectual and moral development of individuals. It also forces proponents of particular ideas and lifestyles to hold themselves to account, to see their worldview prosper or fall in the market place of ideas. Toleration of ideas and lifestyles is not the same as acceptance or support for different ideas and lifestyles. 

Supporters of no platform argue that competing ideas won’t win over people who have a fixed attachment to a particular set of ideas. They argue that hardcore racists will not be so easily won over to humanism and equality, so therefore closing off their expression is the right course of action. Indeed, we have seen this with the failure of the de-radicalisation programme of Islamic terrorists in recent years. It is true that a belief system becomes a key part of a person’s self-concept and outlook and competing arguments won’t necessarily change their minds. Nor will the sense that they are ostracised from mainstream or respectable society will necessarily change their minds either. The problem with this argument to justify intolerance and censorship is that it is both anti-democratic and hostile to individualism. It is anti-democratic because it ignores how a battle of ideas is based on a majoritarian opinion and consensus, not the fact that a tiny minority still hold onto to opinions that have been discredited and defeated. It is anti-individual because it demands that all people should become a means to an end, that they have to be part of a particular consensus goal whether they want to or not. 

Indeed, hostility towards being judgemental is essentially an attack on individualism and the free willing subject. Firstly, it requests that individuals do not make a moral judgement on the behaviour or ideas of another. It thus attacks our capacity for self-reflection and moral agency. Secondly, a refusal to be judgemental also absolves an individual of their capacity to act morally. Increasingly, a medical reason for badly behaved teenagers or a murderer is often sought as an explanation for their behaviour, not the judgement that they’ve behaved in a morally wrong way. 

Hostility towards being judgemental might appear benign and an expression of good manners, but in fact it is an attack on our individualism because it demands we suspend our capacity for moral judgement on ideas and behaviour.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The 75th Anniversary of Animal Farm

To coincide with the 75th Anniversary of Animal Farm, the Academy of Ideas hosted a bookclub discussion on George Orwell's novella. This was the introduction on Thursday 16th April 2020

Animal Farm

Animal Farm was first published in August 1945 and is probably George Orwell’s second most famous published work after 1984. The original full title was Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. Famously, of course, Animal Farm is an allegorical novella. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer. They are hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free and prosperous. Ultimately, however, the rebellion is betrayed under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon. Consequently, the animals ending up in a farm-state as bad as it was before. There was no big secret here. For Orwell, the fable reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then onto the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

Although both Animal Farm and 1984 are reflections and satires of Stalinism and totalitarianism, both books have been used as warning bells on the nature of power itself. For this reason, they do not date as a period piece of documenting the destructive impact of Stalinism. They raise questions on the nature of power, how to gain consent and the problems of legal constitutionalism as well. Although 1984 has often been used outside of the contextual framework of Stalinism, I think this is less so with Animal Farm. And this is what I want to look at this evening. I want to examine some of the key themes that Orwell was writing about in Animal Farm and what insights it can bring to a 21st century context.On social media, some journalists nickname Owen Jones Squealer, after the mediating pig in Animal Farm, who explains to the party faithful the latest twist, turn and revision of the party’s policies. So clearly, there’s scope for referencing Animal Farm in a fresh context!

Then and now, Animal Farm criticises the claim that social inequalities are a product of natural inequalities, how the division of labour on the farm is organised. It speaks to us of how the work the animals do is similar to humans working like animals under capitalism. The rats in Animal Farm I tend to see as analogous to the lumpen proletariat, marginal to the production process but parasitical on the labour of others.

On mapping out a future society for the animals, Orwell is also caricaturing the hairshirt tendencies of left wing radicals and their opposition to consumerism or luxury goods. The products of an advanced society in Animal Farm are cast as ‘evil’ rather than a positive development for all. The caricature of the Bolshevik party is well known here too. Orwell narrates the development of political theory and organisation amongst the animals on Manor Farm, with Napoleon and Snowball the vanguard leaders. Equally the decadent farmer Mr Jones is analogous to a corrupt and decadent bourgeoisie in Russia and also the bourgeoisie prior to the French revolution as well. Immediately after the revolution on Manor Farm, the pigs establish seven commandments of Animalism or a written constitution and thus possesses legal power.

Throughout the novella, the constitution is constantly amended or re-interpreted to suit the power objectives of Napoleon and Snowball. I think here, Orwell speaks to the limitations of Constitutionalism that applies outside of his satire of the Soviet Union. In fact, this more accurately reflects how the American Constitution has chopped and changed to meet the requirements of the US establishment at any given time - from legally justifying slavery to legalising gay marriage on a federal level. Rather than a written constitution protecting the rights of individuals, Orwell is arguing that only the powerful have the capacity to amend written constitutions and this is done to enhance the power of a political class. It is not in place to automatically protect natural rights. In this way, Animal Farm speaks to us on the dangers of Constitutionalism and how legal principles are used to undermine politics.

Orwell makes great play of how expertise and intelligence become synonymous with leadership and a born-to-rule attitude, rather than something that is an outcome of an elected mandate. Animal Farm speaks to us on how technical expertise is used as a mechanism to justify leadership without accountability, a constant feature of the workings on Animal Farm. Interestingly, Orwell writes that it was ‘natural’ that the pigs should assume the leadership. For all the shift from the hereditary principle and monarchism in western societies, Orwell is hinting that technocratic qualities make leadership a natural outcome, but not one from an elected mandate.

In the early period of the animal revolution, we learn that the animals held weekly planning meetings for the seven days ahead (although it’s only the pigs who put forward the actual resolutions). A period of self-improvement of the animals is also in evidence during the early stages of the revolution. Nevertheless, we watch how the animals descend into groupthink, summed up in the phrase "4 legs good 2 legs bad". This is a conforming slogan that has the effect of undermining new ideas and opinions. It’s no coincidence that the pigs start to set aside themselves apart from the other animals via the language of paternalism and risk assessment of the other animals. It's a language that is all too familiar in the 21st century.

The Animal Farm revolution effectively ends its early promise when Napoleon announces, once Snowball has been banished, that the weekly meetings would come to an end. Instead, decision making on the farm is done in private amongst an unelected pig leadership. Many of the Left today utter the words democracy with almost sneering inverted commas, a concept from a by gone age that has become a bit of a joke. As Orwell outlines here, the revolution is betrayed once democratic decision making is removed from the masses and when leadership is not accountable to the mass of society. Any claims for a progressive and radical society, Orwell is saying, is effectively over once democracy is removed from social organisation.

As Napoleon consolidates his rule, he become more interested in discussing trade and politics with the human leaders of nearby farms. The pig leadership completely isolates themselves from the populace on Animal Farm, allowing rulers from other farms to have a say over what impacts on them. The description of the Pigs enjoying being at the table with other human farmers demonstrate how they get their validation from other members of the farming elite, rather than the animals in their own jurisdiction. Although Animal Farm is obviously allegorical to Stalin’s cavorting with Western leaders, the novella also applies to political processes that end up preferring the company of other elites than the mass of citizens at home.

However, I’d be interested on what people think about the depiction of the dumb animals blindly following the pigs orders, those animals incapable of making decisions for themselves or not having the ability to question authority. We’re used to that awful hybrid word of sheeple, is Orwell casting similar aspersions to the lower orders in Animal Farm? Is he revealing his own upper class prejudices against the uneducated throng, incapable of challenging the way society is organised? Or is he spelling out the dangers of Stalinist bureaucracy and Stalinist groupthink when it comes to political processes?

Overall, then, Animal Farm is about the importance of power and how democracy and accountability are antidotes to the corruption of power. It examines the perils when radicals jettison democratic mandates, whether in a highly fraught revolutionary context or in the current context of 21st century Europe.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Patriotism: the acceptable face of nationalism?

A slightly longer version of my introductory remarks at this year's Battle of Ideas Patriotism: the acceptable face of nationalism?

The referendum on membership of the European Union has thrown the issue of nationalism and patriotism centre stage, (although as I’ll examine later this has merely bought to the surface a long term hostility towards nationalism from the political class). Any positive identification that citizens have with a nation is now deemed highly dangerous. Membership of the European Union, the argument goes, diffuses such backward patriotism in favour of brotherly, transnational co-operation with other member states. Why would anyone on the left take a ‘nationalist turn’ against a transnational set up? Why would progressive believe that patriotism, a love for fellow countrymen in a nation state, could ever be cause to stand up to?

Nationalism is not in itself an ideology, but rather it’s the belief that the nation state should be the most important organising principle in society. As with actual political ideologies, there are more than one type of nationalism, and the characteristics of national identity has more than one sense of belonging too. Rejecting nationalism and patriotism because it has associations with aggressive, exclusive forms of nationalism is a bit like arguing that we should reject all politics on the basis that there are far right political beliefs. It’s often argued that the experience of Nazism has discredited all forms of nationalism, that there’s no longer an awareness of liberal or progressive nationalism.

I’m not entirely sure about that argument, particularly in a British context. Nationalism in Britain was exceptionally strong in the post-war period and in the 1970s. In fact, anti-Nazism ironically enough became a major source of national pride and patriotism in this country. It’s also forgotten that during that exact same period, to be a nationalist was also associated with being anti-colonialist, from South Africa to the Republican nationalists in Northern Ireland. Nobody would accuse Irish republicans or the African National Congress for being fascists either. But if we take those examples, I think it’s clear that nationalism and patriotism towards fellow countrymen has an entirely progressive content and cause. The idea that nationalism is only the property of a ruling class, conning citizens into identifying with ideas that are not in their interests is not true. If anybody has been watching the Secret History of the Troubles, whereby Irish republicans describe IRA volunteers as being patriots who love their country, its clear that patriotism can be a politically independent movement in opposition to powerful interests.

But we don’t even have to look to anti-colonial movements to make the case for progressive nationalism. Wester nation states were built on the historically progressive development of nation states built on liberal values. For Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, patriotism was grounded in a love of civic virtues, of creating a common belonging based on a shared agreement in rights, freedoms, toleration and democracy. Far from this demoting a hatred for others, it provided a cohering identity on citizenship and democratic accountability of rulers. Rather than a national identity being based on cultural values, a progressive liberal nationalism has its foundations within a shared love of a free and politically equal society. This does not prevent migrants moving to a liberal nation, but only that if you want join this club, you would be expected to follow its rules and values. Finally, this type of nationalism would also respect the national borders of other nation states because other states would be viewed as autonomous entities in the same way that individuals would be viewed as autonomous entities possessing rights.

The more we look at nationalism in this way, you can clearly see how it puts the mass of citizens centre stage within society, particularly notions of popular sovereignty and its pressure on political leaders and the state. Now for the past 30 years or ago in Britain, especially when there was no longer any use for reactionary nationalism, the backlash is against liberal nationalism rather than any pre-emptive strike against xenophobic attitudes. It is an easiness and hostility towards the idea that the masses or the mob should be involved in democratic decisions making. Liberal nationalism celebrates popular sovereignty as a way of cohering society, but today radicals reject popular sovereignty on the grounds that the uneducated plebs are actually not up to that task. It’s worth remembering that it was the old Tory party who initially started to distances themselves from their old nationalism, re-branding it as a plebeian identity - Remainers are merely echoing sentiments that have been just below the surface for quite a while.

This is why after the referendum results, the chance to reclaim popular sovereignty and a national identity based on the belief that decision making should be accountable to citizens is the most radical and explosive issue today. Not since the Chartists and the Levellers, has this street level yearning for liberal nationalism and a patriotic attachment to fellow citizens has been independent from and hostile to the present political class.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Anti Material Ideology

An on-going ideological narrative in the 21st century is a rejection of material progress, of people having and consuming more stuff. This may seem counter-intuitive given that the free market is synonymous with mass consumer society. However, everyone from environmentalists to business leaders is denouncing accumulating more wealth, more goods, more stuff. Two recent articles of mine briefly explore examples. Firstly one related to well-being and the other Richard Branson's blog piece explaining why he has never been motivated by accumulating more stuff.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Losing Faith in State Schools?

There is a campaign to prevent selection based on faith or religious affiliation. This was my piece in response and it can be found here

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Who benefits from benefits?

A number of recent spiked-online articles of mine have examined the problematic character of welfarism today. Back in February I re-appraised the Cait Reilly case here and examined interventionist welfarism in the context of the August 2011 riots here. And to show that left wingers in the past were also suspicious of welfarism, my review of the reissued 1979 novel, Benefits, which highlighted problems of dependency and the demise of political independence, can be found here

Monday, February 04, 2013

Zadie Smith NW - review

It was a delight to wax lyrical about Zadie Smith and, while NW isn't her best, it is still streets ahead of any urban based novelist nobody cares to mention. My review of NW can be found here

Saturday, February 02, 2013

A Round Up of Recent Spiked Articles

The degrading meltdown surrounding the Jimmy Savile scandal has been one of the more disturbing developments in British society. No one would defend Savile, but the raking over of cheeseball entertainers' personal life was downright weird. Inevitably, this lead to an emboldened renewal for further attacks on parental autonomy. So much so that the disgraceful Cleveland Scandal in 1987 was disgracefully back in the news as a 'maybe they were right all along' question. This was my trenchant opposition to rewriting the Cleveland Scandal.

There was a quirky news item in the Guardian around the same time on MPs refusing to take a nightbus home. It was written in those 'pithy', 'modern-life-is-rubbish' style that has a self satisfied 'that's telling 'em!' tone. My dismissal of the petitbourgeois misanthropes can be found here. Finally for this round up, I take a pot shot at metropolitans who use immigrants as a way of 'showing up' native white working class for being 'ignorant' and 'racist'. You can find that piece here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Unpatriotic History of the Second World War

The writer and author James Heartfield turned his blog piece on the Second World War itno a full blown, 500 page tome. Read my review of his history here

Saturday, October 27, 2012

EMA - an attack on youthful autonomy

Ex-Labour party politicians are advocating a return to EMA funding for sixth formers. Here I argue why it was a bad idea in the first place and its demise was to be welcomed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Whatever happened to Teenage Kicks?

I've frequently had a sly dig at BBC4's reliance on pop nostalgia for 40somethings. In truth, however, they are often enjoyable indulgences for a quiet Friday night. And so it was with Here Comes the Summer documentary on Derry's punk-pop quintet, The Undertones. The most striking aspect of the doc was how, even in a militarised state, teens had more freedom than they do today. Read my review of the programme here

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

London Underground: A wonder of the modern world

Andrew Martin does a fine job in celebrating the history and experience of the Tube, a pioneering railway that embodies all the characteristics - good and bad - of our capital city. The review can be found here.

Stop Your Sobbing!

To be radical these days is to feel blubbering self-pity for yourself or for other people's imagined grievances. All of this has nothing to do with social solidarity and compassion, pity is the 'worst kind of emotions' as I explain here.