The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.
I’ve been trying to make sense of the Brexit (or rather E-exit) vote in terms of the analysis I put forward a while back. The result, over the fold, is a piece in Inside Story, an Australian magazine.
The key point is, that, in the absence of a coherent left alternative, neoliberalism (hard and soft) is being overwhelmed by a tribalist backlash. Writing this, I realise it might be construed as criticism of Corbyn for failing to develop and propose such an alternative in the referendum campaign. That would be a bad misreading. The context of the referendum meant that it was always going to be a choice of evils: between the racism and bigotry that animated so much of the Leave campaign, and the neoliberalism of both the Cameron government and the EU. The option of a social democratic, or even soft neoliberal, EU was not on the ballot.
Warning: Amateur political analysis ahead. I posted this on Crooked Timber a few days ago. It isn’t as applicable to Australia. In part, I think, this is because Rudd (along with Henry and Swan) saved us from the GFC with Keynesian policies, but then failed to defend them, leaving the advocates of market liberal reform largely unchallenged.
Looking at the way politics has evolved over the past 25 years or so, in the English-speaking world and beyond, I have developed an analysis which is certainly not original, but which I haven’t seen set down in exactly the way I would like. Here’s the shorter version:
There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.
Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NY Times, headlined Some Inconvenient Gun Facts for Liberals . The headline, though presumably not chosen by Kristof, is a pretty accurate summary of the article, which berates liberals for proposing various ineffectual gun control measures, and concludes:
Let’s make America’s gun battles less ideological and more driven by evidence of what works.
If Kristof wants to be taken seriously, he ought to acknowledge the actual evidence of what works, namely, measures that drastically reduce the number of guns and restrict their availability. I discussed the evidence a bit more in this post, with links.
Of course, such measures aren’t politically feasible in the US, and have to be disavowed by politicians seeking even limited progress. But if Kristof started by admitting this, he’d end up with a very different analysis than the one he’s putting forward. The primary criterion for any gun control policy in the US has to be to maximize the ratio of long-term harm reduction to political cost. I don’t have any particularly good ideas about political strategies. Still, it’s clear that Kristof’s operating assumption that sweet reason will be sufficient, or even helpful, is way off the mark.
In the Australian context, it’s notable that the only people who deny the obvious facts about gun control are those who have a strong ideological or personal motive for doing so. It’s scarcely surprising that gun enthusiasts want to resist any measures that would inconvenience them, and are willing to employ spurious arguments to do so – that’s true for just about any group.
What’s more striking is the attitude of David Leyonjhelm, the Senate representative of the Liberal Democratic Party. When dealing with something he doesn’t like, such as wind turbines, he’s willing to accept utterly bogus claims of health risks. When it’s something he likes, such as guns whose only purpose is to kill, he’s just as happy to reject the evidence.
Unfortunately, this combination of attitudes is very common among self-described libertarians. The implication is that, as a libertarian, you can oppose any government restriction you dislike, while supporting any you favor – you just need to make up your own facts.
I just read this piece on The Drum, taking the line that it’s better to rely on the betting markets, which have Labor and the government level-pegging, than on the polls, which have had Labor well ahead for a long time. Elections are only held every few years, so they don’t provide much data on which to test the relative performance of the two. But, if markets give better estimates than polls, we should expect to see movements in the poll results follow those in the market rather than vice versa (in econometrics, this is called Granger causality). Digging around, I located a study finding that, if anything, movements in polls Granger cause movements in betting markets.
Since a compelling observation beats an econometric analysis for most people, let’s look at the 18 months or so since I last posted on this topic. Labor started out with a small lead in the polls and stayed consistently in front, with the lead varying over time. Meanwhile, the betting markets favored the government until very recently, before moving to even money. It seems clear in this case, that the markets are following the polls and not vice versa.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue
The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must
And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.
I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words
Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity
Eventually, this policy lead to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The war on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.
Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey Robin’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.
I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”
Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).
The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion at Crooked Timber as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.
I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.
The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.
The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.
So, some questions to start off with
First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?
Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?
I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.
Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research, .
But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.
I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.
One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.
That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.
When campaigning for office, Campbell Newman promise public servants they had nothing to fear from an LNP government
Breaking that promise, and announcing 10-20 000 job cuts, Newman promised no cuts in staff delivering “frontline” services
Breaking that promise, and sacking large numbers of frontline staff, Newman promised that, even if staff were cut, frontline services would not be
Given this trajectory, it was only a matter of time before the word “core”, made infamous by John Howard’s “core promises”, appeared in government rhetoric. And here it is. Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service chief executive, Adrian Pennington, who is busy abandoning or privatising a wide range of preventative care services, services to the elderly and so on, says, of cuts to emergency staff
There have been no cuts to front-line services in our emergency departments in Bundaberg, Hervey Bay or Maryborough. Emergency departments are core services to keep our people safe.
Pennington’s claim is disputed in the article, but what’s notable here is the emergence, as with Howard, of the implied non-care category of services we will have to do without.
We can all expect plenty more of this under Abbott.
Sunday was Mother’s Day in Paris, and also the occasion of a big demonstration against equal marriage, titled “Manif Pour Tous”, presumably with the unspoken reservation “sauf homos”. I ran into a bit of the crowd, coming back from this event [^1], and they were certainly loud and boisterous. The idea that this was a rightwing version of a “Paris Spring” occurred to me, and also to this commentator in Le Monde.
I’ve seen it suggested that resistance to equal marriage is stronger in France, because there’s no legal recognition for church marriages – everyone has to go through the same civil ceremony. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.
Overall, the real appeal of the right still seems to me to lie in anti-immigrant rhetoric and, within Europe, on attempts to blame the people of one country or another for a crisis of the entire global system of financial capitalism. The backlash against equal marriage seems to me to be the last gasp of the cultural right, rather than the basis for a sustained upsurge. But then, what I know about social developments in France would fit comfortably on a restaurant menu, so I’d be interested in what others have to say on this..
[^1]: I’m actually in town for this conference, where I’ll be talking about bounded rationality and financial crises. Essentially a preliminary attempt to describe the “Black Swan” problem in terms of formal decision theory, with the hope that this will lead to a more developed theory of financial bubbles and busts.
Crooked Timber recently ran a book event on The Priority of Dem>ocracy by Knight and Johnson, which produced a lot of interesting discussion about various kinds of arguments in favor of democracy. I’d like to look at a couple of related questions: why does (representative) democracy exist, and why has it become the dominant form of government in the modern world? Here’s a two-part explanation, which doesn’t invoke any ideal theory or even much of a pragmatic case that democracy will produce good policies.
(A) Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another, and gives the losers the knowledge they will always have another chance. It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work
(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension
An obvious question on (i) is why representative government took so long to emerge. I have some ideas but I’ll leave it to commenters to discuss if you want.
If the explanation I’ve given works to explain the existence and survival of representative democracy, it doesn’t say much about the character of that democracy. It’s obviously consistent with a duopoly made up of two more-or-less similar factions in an oligarchic ruling class, but it doesn’t preclude versions closer to the ideal where representatives actually represent their constituents.
I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist, so I won’t be surprised to learn that these thoughts are wholly unoriginal. But they seem to have some bearing on our recent discussion, and not to have been raised there, so I’m opening up to others.
We were talking at CT not long ago about universal basic income policy, and there were a variety of opinions about the desirability, political sustainability and implications of such a policy. But, before arguing about those issues, it’s useful to consider whether a basic income is feasible at all and, if so, what kinds of tax policies, and adjustments to other welfare policies, would be required to support it. I’ve considered the relatively easy case of a guaranteed minimum income, rather than a universal basic income paid to everyone, as advocated by Philippe von Parijs and others.
I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the way in which all US political issues are viewed, particularly from the right, through the lens of the culture wars. The same is true for the large segments of the right in other English-speaking countries that take their lead from the US. I decided to get it done after reading this piece from Jonathan Haidt in the NYT, which makes quite a few of the points I had in mind, but treats political tribalism as an eternal reality (here evo-psych raises its inevitable head) rather than a factor that varies in importance at different times and places.
A week or so ago I did an interview by Skype videolink with Taryn Hart of Occupied Media, talking about the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street. It’s now available online. I never watch myself on video, but I did listen to the whole thing and, allowing for a fair number of ums, ahs, and circumlocutions, I think the questions gave me the chance to state my ideas, and in some cases to work out on the spot what I thought about various issues.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I got a lot out of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, and am still hoping our long-promised book event comes to fruition. The general idea of the book was in line with my thinking that technocratic rationality, of the kind offered by, say Obama or Blair, is not a sufficient answer to the irrationalist tribalism of the right – the left needs a transformative vision to offer hope of a better life, both for the increasing proportion of the population in rich countries who are losing ground as a result of growing inequality and for the great majority of the world’s population who are still poor by OECD standards. So, Utopia matters.
But it’s just as important that utopia be feasible. Utopia as a dream may be comforting, but is unlikely to inspire effective political action. And attempts to implement a utopia that isn’t feasible are bound to end in failure, quite possibly disastrous failure, as the experience of communism showed us.
Turning to health care, we could start with a utopian ideal where everyone got all the health care that could benefit them. But that would be utopian in the pejorative sense – the scope for expanding health services is effectively infinite, and the resources available to society are not.
Thinking about feasible utopia, on the other hand, it seems to me that the system of socialised health care in modern social democracies is not a bad model. That is, if all of society worked like the health care system at its best, we could regard the political project of social democracy as a success.
That’s the tagline of Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years. I knew that it was quoted by Isaiah Berlin as a translation of something written by Kant, but I’ve never, until yesterday, seen it in a more complete context. That’s when I finally stumbled across Berlin’s, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows
a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.
Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.
A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.
It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.
fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.
Yves Smith, whose Naked Capitalism blog is essential reading, is guestblogging for Glenn Greenwald this week. Her latest post sums up a lot of evidence on the adverse effects of inequality, and includes a reference to a post of mine. In summary, the huge growth of inequality in the US has harmed everyone below the 90th percentile of the income distribution in the obvious way – they get a smaller share of a cake that isn’t growing very fast, and has been shrinking since the crisis began
But even people above that level, but outside the top 1 per cent are worse off in important ways. They’ve maintained or increased their share of national income, but they aren’t rich enough to insulate themselves fully from the adverse consequences of living in a highly unequal society. Yves sums up a bunch of the evidence on thsi.
Finally, there are those in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution, now pulling in 25 per cent of all income. Members of this group can, if they choose, ignore the collapse of the society outside their gated communities, and focus on enjoying the wealth they extract from it. On recent evidence, that’s what they (or at least their political representatives) are doing, while also managing a very effective set of divide and rule tactics for the rest of the population.
I’ve been writing series of posts examining the question – what is left of Marxism, as a way to understand the world, and as a way to change it, once it is accepted that capitalism is not going to be overthrown by a working class revolution. The first was about class and the second about crisis. Now for the final instalment: capital.
I’m writing series of posts examining the question – what is left of Marxism, as a way to understand the world, and as a way to change it, once it is accepted that capitalism is not going to be overthrown by a working class revolution. Last time I talked about class. This post is about crisis. As before, the shorter JQ is “there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.”
I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.
I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class
I wrote a while ago that most of the denialists touting the line that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995” wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them. There’s an even better example in the Letters page of today’s Fin, where JL Goldsworthy of Woorim writes “A carbon tax will save about 0.00001 per cent of anthropogenic emissions, if that”.
We can easily check this estimate. Australia is currently responsible for about 2 per cent of global emissions, and the carbon tax is intended to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels (a target that Tony Abbott also ostensibly supports). Business as usual growth will be at least 25 per cent, so the policy goal is an emissions cut of 30 per cent. Primary school arithmetic tells us that 0.02*0.3 = 0.006 or 0.6 per cent. That is, JL Goldsworthy of Woorim is out by a factor of 60 000.
While this is an extreme case, it’s pretty much routine for the rightwing side of the climate debate. Ludicrous numbers like Goldsworthy’s can be found on just about any rightwing blog you care to visit. I’ve pointed out similarly massive errors by Andrew Bolt, Greg Hunt and Terry McCrann among others.
And they don’t care. The point of the debate is not to get things right but to keep up a steady supply of talking points so that those who have been sucked in by the delusions their opinion leaders spout never catch up with the refutations.
Update Unsurprisingly, this number appears to come from the ludicrous, but dangerous, Alan Jones, already notable for the corruption of Cash for Comment, and for his promotion of race riots, thankfully a rare phenomenon in Australia. It’s hard to say anything good about Jones. But the “respectable” right, exemplified by David Flint and John Howard, embrace and defend him. And not a single self-described “sceptic” has tried to correct this absurd and dishonest claim. If there is a single person on the anti-science side of the debate who cares in the slightest for truth, this is an ideal opportunity to step forward – Bob Carter, Ian Plimer, Don Aitkin and William Kininmonth come to mind as candidates.
fn1. The minority who do know what statistical significance means, and keep circulating this spurious (and now factually false) talking point are even worse. I’ll come back to them in another post.
It’s the evening of May Day, though as it falls on a Sunday we will (in Queensland at least) celebrate it with that great Australian institution, a long weekend. Last year, I went on the march, this year I ran a triathlon instead. My somewhat confused attitude is, I think, pretty characteristic of the position labour movement more generally.
As a result of the events in the Arab world, I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises
1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests
2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests
It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.
Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.
According to the Brisbane Times, the Bligh government has just sold the Port of Brisbane to a consortium led by the Queensland Investment Corporation. This must have been a tough negotiation, given that the QIC website states
As a Queensland GOC, QIC’s shareholding Ministers are the Honourable Anna Bligh MP, Premier and Minister for the Arts, and the Honourable Andrew Fraser MP, Treasurer and Minister for Employment and Economic Development
Note: As with the QR sale, it looks as if the government has retained about $1.3 billion of debt in the Port of Brisbane Corporation, which now has no assets, so the net proceeds will be less than half the announced price of $2.3 billion.
Angela Merkel’s recent denunciation of German multiculturalism marks another step in the tightening of ties between the market-liberal right and ethnic-national tribalism, evident in other European countries and in the US (most obviously with the rise of the Tea Party). In part at least, this is a result of weakness. The positive appeal of market liberalism has declined a fair bit since the triumphalist decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and the global financial crisis exposed the failure of its theoretical basis. But there are obvious problems for social democrats in responding to this development. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the view that it’s better to put up some half-thought ideas for discussion (and maybe debunking) than to wait for a perfect formulation.
The left needs to offer a transformational vision of a better society if it is to motivate the kind of enthusiasm needed to overcome a rightwing politics of tribalism and (often misperceived) self-interest. The 19th/20th century vision of socialism and class solidarity provides a model and a starting point, but that model is no longer adequate, and the political movements it gave rise to are in disarray. We need, a world view that extends the solidarity of social democracy to the whole of humanity .
The institutions of social democracy have been developed primarily at the level of the nation-state and the popular appeal of social democracy rests on notions of solidarity which arise most naturally in a relatively homogeneous society. Most of the last few decades have been spent defending the social democratic welfare state against attacks which were largely justified by claims about the need to respond to (market liberal) globalisation. That defence has been surprisingly successful, even when market liberalism seemed to have won conclusive intellectual and political victories. It’s natural to continue that defensive stance in response to the current push for “austerity”, and to organise that defence at a national level, while seeking to refurbish and to some extent rationalise the national welfare state.
That defensive struggle is necessary, but I don’t think social democracy can endure indefinitely in this defensive/managerialist mode. As I said a while ago we need to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. That means setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. The goals that seem to me to offer the most hope – a world free of nuclear weapons and extreme poverty, an end to the acceptance of war as an instrument of national policy, action to stabilise the global climate – all involve going beyond national governments and concepts of national interest. And, so I believe, does any plausible program to renew and extend social democracy.
The need for global action on issues like nuclear disarmament and climate change is obvious enough. The argument about social democracy is less obvious. In a world where national borders no longer act as an effective barrier to migration, it is harder to justify social welfare systems in terms of solidarity with people like ourselves (since the population is more diverse) or in terms of mutual insurance or past contributions, at least as regards recent arrivals. Particularly where migrant groups are concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution and are therefore net beneficiaries from the welfare state, including health and education systems as well as social insurance. Less obviously perhaps, internationally mobile workers are unlikely to be happy about paying taxes for welfare systems from which they may not benefit. Within the framework of national social welfare systems, the alternatives are to cut back the system for everyone, to discriminate against recent arrivals, or to tighten restrictions on migration.
The alternative is to extend the welfare state beyond national boundaries. This has already happened in a very modest (and often grudging) way with various agreements between national governments, and somewhat more systematically under EU rules which require national governments to treat all EU citizens equally with respect to some social services.
As between very rich and very poor countries, the benefits of this all go one way. People from poor countries gain from access to social services in rich countries, but not vice versa. But we can turn this argument around to say that the achievements of social democracy in the developed world can’t be secure as long as so much of the world is in extreme poverty. As Jeffrey Sachs has argued (and I’ve argued further), ending extreme poverty is entirely feasible, given an effort comparable to that the developed world has put into fighting pointless wars.
The ultimate goal ought to be one in which, everyone, no matter where they happen to be born has access to the basic requirements for a decent life. That doesn’t entail a world government (at least in the sense in which we typically understand the word “government” today) but it does entail a break with ideas based on nation-states as the ultimate focus of sovereignty. One relatively minor, but important step towards this would come with a “contract and converge” approach to CO2 emissions, which would ultimately imply equal entitlements to emissions per person in all countries .
All of this seems utopian in (at least) two senses. First, it seems very hard to sell politically. In part this reflects the long-standing distinction between a maximalist statement of long-term goals and a ‘fighting platform’ for a particular election. Part of my argument is that it’s the lack of long-term vision beyond the preservation of past gains that is sapping enthusiasm for social democracy.
But even after making the obvious adjustments to electoral reality, it’s far from obvious how to fashion a platform based on these ideas that is going to attract majority support in the short term. The power of nationalism and tribalism is strong, and the counter-appeal of global idealism goes only so far. On the other hand, it seems as if there is enough support for greens and leftish social democrats to form the basis of a significant minority that would support such ideas. Given a reaction against rightwing austerity politics, this group could form part of a majority coalition with mainstream social democrats.
More importantly, tribalism and monoculturalist nationalism belong to the past (as do essentialist versions of multiculturalism, in which people are defined by birth into some particular culture). The possibility of sustaining, in any country a majority group (or even a dominant minority) that can be defined homogeneously in terms of race, religion, sexual politics and world-view (all at once) is slipping away fast. Part of the rage of the Tea Party is the fact that its adherents at once recognise this and are unwilling to concede the existence of an America that is not overwhelmingly white, Christian and traditionalist in terms of sexual mores and broader social attitudes. So, the more that social democracy and acceptance of social diversity are seen as two sides of the same coin, the better the long term prospects for social democrats.
The deeper question is whether such a program is feasible at all. Traditional views of international politics take the nation-state as an immutable atomic constituent of the system that can’t be wished out of existence by idealistic political movements. But the reality is that the sovereignty of nation-states has been eroded in all sorts of ways over the years since 1945. That’s most obvious in Europe, but all countries are bound up in a web of international arrangements that are increasingly hard to break out of. Big and powerful states like the US, Russia and China still act intermittently on the assumption that the rules don’t apply to them, but such displays (US and Russian military adventures, China’s attempted blackmail over rare earths) typically have high costs and few benefits. The real question is whether (as was assumed unquestioningly in the years leading up the global financial crisis) such constraints work inevitably in the interests of financialised market liberalism or whether they can be turned in more socially productive directions. I don’t know the answer, but I do think that the attempt to do this represents the best hope for a social democratic future.
Obviously, a lot of what I’ve written above is only partly thought through, and at least some of it is doubtless wrong. However, I’m not really interested in dealing with snarky nitpicking and general derailment, so I will exercise a fair bit of discretion in deleting comments I regard as unhelpful. I’ve opened up a new “sandpit” thread where I will direct snark and lengthy off-topic monologues and back-and-forth disputes between commenters. Since this topic will clearly interest Jack Strocchi, I will pre-emptively direct him to the sandpit.
fn1. This certainly isn’t a new claim – Ulrich Beck has been arguing for a similar, cosmopolitan and social democratic, position for some time. But it certainly needs a lot of working out and discussion, and blogging provides me with an avenue to try out ideas like this.
fn2. Although I don’t believe the process is as conscious as this, the ferocious rightwing resistance to the reality of climate change ultimately reflects an intuition that some global action of this kind is the only possible response.
fn3. The big potential exceptions are China and perhaps Japan, although it seems obvious that maintaining current restrictions on immigration will be very costly for Japan.
My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).
Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.
To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.
My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)
We’ve had a bit of fun at Crooked Timber lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (including Jack Strocchi using the same phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.
It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.
I posted this at Crooked Timber. I plan something a little more specific to Australia when I get some time
One reason that many on the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton is that his rhetoric, at his best, promised something more than incremental reform, a promise summed up by slogans like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”.
Given the political realities of the US, and the obvious fact that Obama is instinctively a pragmatist and centrist, it was never likely that this would translate into radical policy action in the short run. Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction.
I plan to talk about the specific issue of nuclear disarmament in more detail in a later post. The bigger point for me is that after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. Centrist pragmatism provides nothing to match the enthusiasm that can be driven by fear and anger, as we have seen.
What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.
Over the fold, I’ve set out some thoughts I have for goals of this kind. At this stage, I’m not looking for debate on the specifics of these goals or the feasibility of achieving them (again, more on this later). Rather, I’d welcome both discussion of the general issue of what kind of politics the left needs to be pursuing, and suggestions of other goals we ought to be pursuing