Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Beyond tribalism?

February 5th, 2017

In writing about nations (or ethnicities, tribes, cultures or, if pushed, races) one needs to consider how these might be organised (and I have in mind that they may organise themselves). I recently found an interesting article regarding the conflict between democracy and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.

Let’s face it, we are going to have ethnicities for a very long time, if indeed there is any chance they will eventually vanish as a feature of human organisation. One of the more stupid suggestions I’ve seen mooted recently was the idea that we should solve all the problems of the Middle East by eliminating tribalism. Granted, if there was no tribalism (ethnicism), there would probably be far, far fewer tensions in the area, but really? You might as well say we could solve all the same problems by eliminating violence. It is not remotely a practical suggestion.

Humanity is, I think, irredeemably given to creating identity groups. Where there aren’t enough nice clear identities for young people in urban sprawls in the West to adopt, they will create gangs, with their own visual and behavioural distinctives. Before you dismiss this as a feature of youth culture, or counterculture, consider the average parochial church council of body of elders – if there are more than four or five people, there will be factions, and sometimes the level of animus there is equal to that between rival gangs, although, thank the Lord, usually not expressed with guns or edged weapons…

There are a number of factors which contribute towards the identity of an ethnic group or tribe. Large among those is language; if you have a language “the others” don’t understand, this helps you preserve the identity. Dialects and heavy accents will do almost as well, and if you haven’t one already, don’t worry, your group will soon invent its own set of “in group” words. Similarity of appearance is a big one – if your group happens all to have the same skin colour or other clear features such as an epicanthic fold, that’s a good start, but you can get a long way by dress codes, body art and even just general demeanour.

Beliefs are also a very strong identity factor. If they can attain the status of a religion, all the better, but I look at some sports supporters and find it difficult to distinguish their Kierkegaardian “ultimate concern” with their chosen team from the basic substance of a religion, and I am wholly convinced that the neoliberal consensus in economics is religious in nature (and worse than many religions in that its basic tenets such as the infallibility of the market and “trickle down” economics have been shown time and again to be both false and damaging).

Most of all, though, the thing which cements any group together is having an enemy. “Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”  – James Alison. The great enemy du jour in the West (“Western” may not be a tribe, but that holds for many of the individual tribes which constitute “the West” or “the First World”) is nominally Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but the terrorists’ narrative is that this conceals the fact that Islam as a religion, as an ethnicity, as an identity is the enemy, and despite the best endeavours of spokesmen in most of the West (I except the new US administration, who seem incapable of being even slightly subtle) that is very much how things are playing out. While we may say that we are merely combatting terrorism, our actions frequently prejudice Muslims generally, and I can well understand my Muslim friends who no longer feel comfortably “at home” in my country, despite in many cases having been born and brought up here. Yesterday’s great enemy was communism, of course, but that is now almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy (wrongly, in my eyes, as what actually failed was command economies). Indeed, the unifying force of a great enemy seems to be the most significant factor in political divides.

We have to deal with the fact that if you put enough people together, they will form tribes; any attempt to create a larger body with a common identity is likely to founder on petty divisions. I have in mind that even in the early days of Christianity, Paul was complaining of this. It would be nice to think that we can get beyond the great unifying force of a common enemy in order to do this, but at the moment I cannot see a way to do this, apart from stressing at every possible opportunity that we are all human beings; we are children of God irrespective of our other differences.

My next post will talk a little more of the Biblical witness to this idea.

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What tribe are you from?

January 18th, 2017

It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.

I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.

I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.

But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.

Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.

But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.

My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.

The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.

Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.

I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client  mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.

In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.

And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.

Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.

What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…

 

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I want to see the world burn…

December 17th, 2016

About the only entirely logical, fact based and thought-through reason I was given by any friend for voting for Brexit earlier this year was that phrase “I want to see the world burn”. I was not living in a liberal-left bubble, at least not entirely so, so I did have quite a few friends and acquaintances who voted for Brexit, some with considerable enthusiasm (about which I spent a lot of time biting my tongue…). Almost everyone else who explained to me their reasons for voting that way was either relying on what I considered groundless faith that the UK economy could “go it’s own way” more successfully than with privileged access to the largest economic single market in the world (at least until China overtakes it), the belief that immigration was damaging job prospects (which I think is contrary to the facts, though it could have an effect on stifling wage growth) and would be reduced (which I strongly doubt is going to be practicable) or the nebulous idea that we were “restoring sovereignty” by ridding ourselves of a raft of EU rules (which we will have to adhere to anyhow if we want to sell to Europe in the future and will need to replace in order to have any reasonable level of consumer and environmental protection) – there, the facts are probably that we will by “going it alone” be more subject to outside forces, particularly those associated with globalisation, and less able to make our own economic and social policy. OK, there were a few who wanted us to get rid of human rights legislation, which ranks as another logical, fact-based and thought-through reason, but is one which I earnestly hope very few Britons adhere to.

Some had visions of us returning to a past seen through rose-tinted spectacles when we had thriving manufacturing industry, jobs for everyone and (therefore) rising wages and standard of living. Those days are irretrievably gone. Some were justifiably angry at the way the banks had been bailed out, and thought we would become less dependent on them – in fact, we would be more dependent, as finance of some form is, regrettably, our biggest export earner, and we would be less able to consider capping the exorbitant salaries taken by financial middlemen who, in the ultimate analysis, produce nothing, as we would so much more need their ability to cook the books between us and our competitors by the construction of complex and risky financial transactions.

It has seemed to me that the same factors, more or less, were at work in the election of Donald Trump, and I read with interest an article in “The Nation” comparing the Trump campaign with the 1960s Hells Angels. I think this is probably spot on. Underlying all of the complaints of my Brexit friends is, I think, the feeling that things were better in the past for the vast majority of the middle and working classes – and they were. I grew up in a country in which education to a bachelor’s degree level was effectively free (assuming you could get accepted onto a degree course), and where the primary reason for deciding not to get a degree was that employment was extremely readily available at good wages, often better than you’d be likely to see after spending three years getting an university degree. A sizeable number of people from historically working class backgrounds were being educated and getting very good jobs. Contrast how things are now, where any education beyond 18 costs you, and lands round your neck a substantial millstone of debt which produces effective debt peonage. Those getting “good” degrees from leading universities are increasingly those whose parents could pay for their education, and so those entering higher-paid jobs are equally more children of privilege than the “best and brightest”. Where, when I grew up, it was normal for children to leave home at 18 or 21 and buy their own home immediately, now there are increasing numbers of 30 and 40 year olds still living with their parents as they can’t afford to buy or, frequently, even rent. There may be a lot of jobs (in point of fact, there are more jobs now in the country than at any time in the past – unemployment has recently fallen somewhat, despite a continuing vigorous increase in population due to migration), but they are not jobs paying the kind of amounts on which you can base setting up home and raising a family, hence the cartoon featuring the server at a burger bar asking whether the customer wants his burger flipped by a PhD in English, History or Philosophy (OK, there is a dig at the humanities there as well…).

There is no longer the level of opportunity to “get on in the world” for the vast bulk of people which we used to have, and vast numbers of people have given up thinking that any of the old political solutions will work (I could blame the fact that, both sides of the Atlantic, there is no political game in town other than neoliberal economics, save perhaps Sanders and Corbyn, but that remains the perception). In those circumstances, we are looking at populations who are in despair, and despair makes for desperate solutions. “Let’s wreck the whole thing and see what happens (because it can hardly be worse)” starts looking very attractive. As the Nation article says, it’s an emotional rather than a rational motivator, and thus immune to reason, and experts, and even common sense.

But at least, so far, it’s only democratically taken decisions. My worry is that soon it will be decisions which ignore democracy. Perhaps the “end times” are really upon us (which could explain some of the evangelical enthusiasm for Trump). But if, as I might fervently hope, there is a messiah coming, I do hope that it looks more like Jesus than like Trump.

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Roman Catholic (and other) terrorists?

August 13th, 2016

George Takei (always good value to follow) has posted a photo of a letter to the editor from an Australian newspaper. It’s a really good letter, calling attention as it does to the fact that when the Provisional IRA were waging a terror campaign against the United Kingdom, no-one in Australia (or the world generally) referred to them as “Roman Catholic terrorists” and no-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be denied entry to Australia, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA were acting, in their eyes, for the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland and were mostly Catholics.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this applied equally in the remainder of the UK – we didn’t call them Catholic Terrorists, we didn’t ban Catholics from entering the country. The situation was, however, a little different in Northern Ireland itself, where notable members of the Unionist parties typically saw the IRA as the minions of the Pope, who was (as they were largely fairly fundamentalist Protestants) the Antichrist. The Unionist side had their own paramilitary organisations (such as the UVF and the UDA) which equally used terrorist tactics – and the rest of the UK and the world in general didn’t call them Protestant Terrorists either.

This might be considered surprising, as the Unionist attitude was very much what had been the English (and therefore largely the British) attitude generally after Henry VIII decided to nationalise the English possessions of the Catholic Church and the Pope excommunicated him, and he and several subsequent Popes adhered to the line that the duty of all good Catholics was to work to bring about the downfall of England as a nation. In 1605, this extended to the earliest political bomb plot I can think of, in which the catholic convert Guy Fawkes and others attempted unsuccessfully to blow up parliament and with it King James I, not in response to a specific papal order, but definitely in response to repeated papal pronouncements. It took a long time before Catholics were regarded as anything other than probable agents of a foreign power and probable terrorists in England, not just by the state but also by the population at large, involving a lot of barbaric persecution in the early period and causing riots as late as 1780. Some of that popular feeling was actually still present when I was growing up; Catholics were regarded as slightly suspect. However, there wasn’t a widespread identification of the “Troubles” as being the fault of Catholics generally, and certainly Catholics in general were not blamed for any of the actions of the IRA, though for some years we were wary of people with Irish accents. Except by the Northern Ireland Unionists…

Many UK commentators are at pains to paint the Troubles as not a religious conflict but a struggle for national self-determination, but I think they go too far downplaying the religious aspect, not least because religion was fundamental in creating the divided population in the first place. Certainly there were by the 1960s two communities in Northern Ireland, one which saw its identity as part of an united Ireland and the other seeing its identity as part of an unified Great Britain, but that was only one aspect of the respective identities, and another (and very strong) aspect was religion. If you were Catholic, you were almost certainly in favour of an united Ireland, if you were Protestant you were almost certainly in favour of an united UK including Northern Ireland. The touchstone for that identity was religion, and an English rabbi tells of going to Northern Ireland and being asked almost immediately whether he was Catholic or Protestant. He replied that he was Jewish; there was a pause, then came the question “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” The same story has been told to me by more than one atheist, which might lead one to conclude that it’s just a pointed joke which changes its non-christian teller depending on circumstance, but even if it is a fiction, it’s a very true fiction. To anyone who lived through that period (and, indeed, probably the current-day visitor to Northern Ireland) it rings true; that is exactly what the first question of anyone usually was.

In other words, while the conflict might well have been primarily a national and/or ethnic one, religion was so fundamentally part of both national and ethnic identities that it was also a religious conflict. In the secularised West, we are inclined to overlook the fact that for the vast bulk of history and for the vast bulk of humanity now, religion is a fundamental part of their ethnic or national identity – and as the version of the story told by the atheist indicates, this is irrespective of whether you actually believe in the tenets of the faith in question. To anyone with this outlook, the question “are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” doesn’t sound in the slightest bizarre. There is just no third category in Northern Ireland, and there is no third category for most of humanity outside the Western secular democracies today.

Indeed, I can clearly identify, say, Richard Dawkins as a Christian atheist, in that his atheistic thinking is in direct reaction to Christian concepts, not to mention the fact that his upbringing was in a country steeped in Christianity for approaching 2000 years, and while having a surface tone not inimical to atheists, having extremely strong undercurrents of thought which are just – well – Christian. This article is at least partly on point.

I’m inclined to think that it’s pointless asking whether religion co-opted into the service of nationalism or nationalism co-opted into the service of religion is at the root of phenomena like terrorism (and its counterparts state tyranny and national xenophobia). The two are generally such close bedfellows that separating them is impossible. What I do take from this is that states, peoples and religions which feel existentially threatened (as was the case with England, both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout England and Ireland and in Northern Ireland much more recently than that, and is currently the case with some Islamic peoples, nations and groups on the one hand and several Western nations including the UK and US on the other) will react with extreme violence to protect themselves.

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Biblical politics and economics

August 9th, 2016

I think Brad Artson may be my favorite Rabbi (he’s certainly been asked to be “their Rabbi” by more than one non-Jew). Under the guise of biblical advice on which to choose political candidates, he has outlined a biblically based political programme – which is pretty much exactly as I’ve been arguing for some time (although Rabbi Artson doesn’t go so far as to call free market capitalism as we see it operate “the System of Satan”…)

He does have one caveat in the article – he states that he is no expert on the Christian scriptures, but that from everything he’s heard about Jesus, Jesus would not disagree with any of what he’s written. Now my arguments have largely been based on the sayings of Jesus – and they end up in the same place.

This may demonstrate that Jesus was solidly in the Jewish tradition (I think it does), or that our dominant neoliberal social and economic policy is contrary to God’s will for the world (I think it is). Or, of course, both…

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A free market exchange of views…

July 17th, 2016

Elgin Hushbeck has written an impassioned piece in favour of capitalism. I quote him at length:-

“One of the common criticisms of those on the left, particular the religious left, is that capitalism is an evil system because it treats individuals as commodities of momentary worth, rather than as people made in the image of God.  This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.

One reason for this is that at its core capitalism is based on a mutual giving among individuals that is, at least ideally, freely chosen.  There is nothing in this that demands greed or exploitation.  Granted we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives, but this is a problem with all systems, from sports to science, movies to teaching, the private sector, government, and yes, even socialism. It is hardly limited to capitalism.  People are people, regardless of where they are.

and

There is nothing inherent in capitalism that makes men greedy or teaches them to exploit others, in fact if anything it is the opposite for capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual.  Since it is based on mutual consent, it encourages people to be concerned with the needs of others, which I believe is one of the reasons those supporting capitalism are on average more charitable than those supporting socialism.”

Now, as Elgin is my opposite number from the Global Christian Perspectives webcasts (currently in hiatus pending new technology and a new format), and by “opposite” I mean in politics, theological stance and country (the UK and the USA being opposites at least from the point of view of the Atlantic), and he is therefore well aware of my take on capitalism; I still recall the expression on his face when I called free market capitalism “the System of Satan” (which I later elaborated on in a post of the same name). I have written other posts in a similar vein – “Depression, the System of Satan and the Devil’s Evangelism”, “Freedom with or without Property” and “What price Free Trade”.

Do I feel just a teeny bit targeted by that This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.” ? Well, even if Elgin hasn’t read all those four posts of mine (and I’m not going to recapitulate them here – you can click through and read or reread them to see that I do have some very good reasons for thinking the way I do), I think it isn’t unreasonable to think I am, if not THE target, then part of the target. Mind you, it does seem possible that this is just turnaround, and he felt himself targeted as one of the “Devil’s Evangelists”. That would be fair enough, I suppose.

What, then, does it “tell you about me”? It seems to me that in writing it, Elgin meant to imply that my view of capitalists is an overly negative one (after all, he goes on to paint a picture of capitalists as benefactors of all…). What it should tell you is, I think, expanded upon in the four blog posts I link to, but Elgin hasn’t dealt with the contents of those, so I suspect he hasn’t read them. They would also tell him that I’ve reached my position largely due to reading and rereading the synoptic gospels.

But yes, it does tell you that I don’t regard capitalists as generally beneficial to humanity as a whole. For that I have good reason.

It tells you, perhaps,  that I read a bit of economics occasionally, in which people are either units of consumption, units of production or “wealth creators” (i.e. profit takers). Elgin himself is fond of saying that taxation is bad, because it holds back “wealth creation”.

It tells you that I’ve encountered (and advised) large companies governed by cost accountants, balance sheets and share prices, I’ve encountered (and advised) individuals ground down to unsustainable wages and then continually pressured to make more and work harder and faster for no extra benefit to them than that they keep their jobs while the capitalists they work for grow rich, and others thrown on the scrapheap of society as unemployable and therefore worthless, and somehow also morally reprehensible.

It tells you that I’ve seen societies in which the size of your bank balance is the main indication of your worth as a human being (and on both sides of the Atlantic that is increasingly true). It also, perhaps tells you that I spent a significant part of my life enslaved by the fear of loss of financial security and the need to make more (as I deal with in the second post above) and have only with substantial pain learned that that is a way to exist, but not a way to live.

But actually, if you read on in the piece I’ve quoted, it tells you not about me in myself, but about me not being a writer who confuses capitalism with a market economy – perhaps particularly a “free market economy”. Capitalism is about the ownership of the means of production by individuals, which in and of itself seems innocuous enough; you can have a capitalist economy with very restricted trade, as indeed we used to in the UK when mercantilism was the dominant economic model (and, for what it’s worth, I think the free market version of capitalism is significantly superior to the mercantilist version).

As with the rest of Elgin’s piece, however, he describes (in descibing a free market rather than a capitalist economy) an idyllic world in which everyone bargains freely for everything they want or need with others who merely wish to make a reasonable return for their labour, and if he actually lives in a world which generally operates like that, he is incredibly lucky and privileged.

Actually, in order for the bulk of his transactions to resemble the picture he paints, he must be truly privileged and have a significant disposable income as well. Those who are “scraping by” or who are dependent on low-paid employment in order to exist will not recognise that picture, wherever they live.

No society I have encountered actually operates that way. In small towns in the UK, some businesses certainly used to operate like that when I was growing up (though by and large not in cities), but not any more – that type of business owner has mostly been driven out of business by large companies, and those who survive, survive on the margins. Most typically this change is seen in the case of small retailers who have almost all fallen to the supermarkets and chain stores, which, of course, operate purely for profit; these may try to make their customers happy, but this is at the expense of their producers and their workers (and in the celebrated cases of Wall-Mart and others like them, the expense of the taxpayer who subsidises the workers’ poverty wages). Both their producers and their employees scrape along without any of the supposed benefits of a “free market”, the first because there is now nowhere else to sell to, the second because if they raise any objection they can be fired and instantly replaced by one of the millions of jobless.

His idyllic scene, of course, only works if we ignore the fact that (as he concedes)  “we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives”Better, I think, that we assume that people are not driven that way and be agreeably surprised if things turn out otherwise – but please, let us not make a virtue out of greed and exploitation. Elgin writes of an idealised (I’m tempted to say “fantasy”) capitalism, suggesting that greed and exploitation are not at the root of a free market capitalist economy, but this is not what conventional economic theory says; he claims “capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual”. However. the form capitalism has actually developed to (which is probably properly described as “financialised capitalism”), does not remotely “seek an exchange that is best for both sides”, it attempts to extract the maximum price for the least possible overheads (and the wages of employees and the quality of raw materials are both overheads). Anything else hurts the bottom line, and impedes “wealth creation”.

This is traditional economic theory, which holds that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. In other words, it demands exactly “greed and exploitation”, and rewards both with bonuses for CEO’s and managers. This capitalism indeed does not “care what motivates a transaction” (as Elgin says later), but it also does not “care whether it is freely entered into by both sides” contrary to what he suggests – indeed, it prefers monopolies, particularly in goods which are necessities, and in labour relations it prefers that the option is “take what we offer or starve”. For example, our young people are increasingly forced to take “zero hours contracts” where they are at the beck and call of the employer, but the employer has no obligations to them.

It is unfortunately the case that in a free market businesses grow inexorably towards monopolies (or at least cartels) and as Adam Smith wrote “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The result is that the ideal of the free market is distorted by the players in the market, until it stops being free, and until it takes at least partial control of government, as this article shows. The “wealth” (i.e. ownership) becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands until a very few people hold almost all the ownership and power – and money, and therefore worth as human beings.

It is also resolutely short term, because it is forced to be that way by the financial system which sees only the last balance sheet and profit and loss statement, and will take profits where it can, as there are always other bigger short term profits to be made than building for long term stability of a company. Whatever type of motivation people may have personally, finance-driven capitalism substitutes the law of the bottom line.

Elgin is, of course, right that at the root of much of this is the insurance companies, pension schemes and banks on which we normal human beings rely – and so very few of us are not in the end complicit in this system. Short term means that you do not want your employees to be loyal, just to work harder (they can always be replaced), you do not care about the environment (far too long term!), you do not care about quality as long as you can get people to buy (what, after all, are marketing and advertising for?). The fact that we are complicit, however, does not mean that the system is good…

Finally, he contrasts capitalism with socialism, which he states needs a strong central government, and suggests that as government restricts autonomy, this is axiomatically a bad thing.

Now, bearing in mind that markets (as we have seen) tend to produce monopolies, and monopolies are bad even from the point of view of the most ardent free-marketeer, and that capitalism tends to produce a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals with a larger and larger percentage of wealth/ownership, which itself distorts the market (a free bargain for something requires that you have disposable income sufficient to buy, which is increasingly not the case for a large proportion of society, and mere disparity in power to purchase negates any sense of free bargain), there is clearly a need for something to mitigate these effects (and the other negative effects I’ve mentioned above, including perhaps most strongly the short term perspective of everything), and as businesses and the markets are not going to deliver that, government must; that is to say the people acting as a whole by their representatives and employees must take a stand to prevent the domination of everything by a few corporations. Many of those corporations are now multi-national and have  wealth and power well in excess of that of some countries, so government must be at least that strong.

However, Elgin has a point with which I do agree. Just as corporations tend to get bigger, so does government, and the larger something is, the more remote it is from its ultimate owners even in a system of representative democracy. Just as by the time I have followed through the investment of my pension through multiple companies, my voice cannot be heard, so by the time my democratic vote has been filtered through a party system, a lobbying system and the necessary apparatus of civil servants my voice also cannot be heard (though it is there somewhat easier, as I can at least find where to meet my immediate representatives in person).

In addition, the financial power of big business, big finance and the very wealthy allows them to influence government in a way the ordinary individual cannot match, even in combination, just as it creates automatic distortion in markets. Elgin and myself are agreed that this is a bad thing, but he appears to consider that capitalism, left to itself, will produce a beneficial effect and that anything else is transferring power to government and is therefore axiomatically a bad thing. I consider that capitalism and government both are at least somewhat broken; capitalism needs restraining, but so does government – and we have, in theory at least, the means to restrain government via the ballot box.

I am thus very slighly hopeful, seeing the collapse of both our UK main political parties in infighting, that we may see a political restructuring here which may, just possibly, restore a small amount of control to the individual voter. Maybe in the course of that, the messages that bigger is not always better and that local issues should be dealt with by the people who live there may strike home. Perhaps, just perhaps, we could see the possibility that all of big business, big finance and big government might have their wings clipped.

It’s a small hope, but I need to nurture it.

 

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Orlando: a delayed reaction

June 17th, 2016

I was going to post something immediately I heard the news about Orlando, but thought “No, wait and see, don’t shoot from the hip, it’s usually a bad idea”. And, indeed, I’ve seen a lot of posts and TV interviews where people have been proving me correct.

Orlando is a tragedy. With so many killed and injured, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who are closely affected by the loss of a loved one or friend, or their serious injury, and my heart goes out to them (as do my prayers).

It is particularly a tragedy because it was caused by one human being. And yes, he no doubt had a family and friends who are also traumatised, probably in part by a feeling of guilt that they did not see it coming and do something to prevent it (all I’m actually aware of at the point of writing is his ex-wife, who is trying to find reasons in his history with her which would make sense of this action – and, so far as I can see, failing).

I can understand people’s distaste for the fact that it has immediately become political. But that was always going to happen, and no doubt that was in part the intention of the shooter. The article I link to rather effectively goes through the set of responses which one might expect, in part because they have happened so many times before. They somewhat reflect the seven stages of grief, no doubt deliberately. What is not there, however, is a practical suggestion as to what might be done to make events like this less common in future. Another way in which this is a tragedy is that these mass shootings happen so frequently. The same author in fact provides a suggestion here. I’ll come back to that…

We were, however, always going to ask ourselves “What caused this, and how can we avoid it happening again?”, and that is inevitably political. Despite the attempts of some media to divert attention to the shooter’s espousal of ISIS, the first answer to that has to be homophobia. Hate of homosexuals. If you’re not acting out of homophobia, you don’t target a gay night club; if you’re following ISIS’s normal script of the horrendous decadence of the West, any old nightclub would have done. Or an university… we should not forget that 50 dead is not exceptional by some standards.

It is possible that fundamentalist religious beliefs were a secondary cause; after all, the shooter was Muslim and did announce his adherence to ISIS. However, there is precious little sign that he was an observant Muslim or that he had any contact with radical Islam other than from reading stuff online. That said, fundamentalist Christian beliefs fuel homophobia even better than do fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, and do so far more prominently in the States. If any blame is to be cast on Islam, it probably needs to be equally allocated to Christianity. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is frankly bullshit; if you hate something which is a fundamental aspect of someone’s character (as is sexual orientation) you’re hating the person; the two things are not separable.

The fact that this guy was able to go out and equip himself with guns (and in particular a semi-automatic rifle) despite being on a watch list for potential terrorism and having a history of matrimonial violence is absolutely a cause, and probably a primary cause rather than a secondary one. The possession of semi-automatic weapons makes it possible to kill a lot of people very quickly (as in fact happened); yes, I accept that the unavailability of guns would not have guaranteed this did not happen (he could have bought ingredients and built bombs instead), but he could not go out and buy ready-made anti-personnel bombs. Or at least, I don’t think he could have, even in the States. That would have required patience, planning and some expertise, and while he could have found instructions on the internet, each piece of planning and construction required gives another chance for someone to think better of a course of action. This is something which I completely fail to understand that America has not fixed, although some reasons for that may come out later. The UK and Australia have both reacted to mass shootings with stringent gun control, and neither have had any mass shootings for quite some time…

The thing is, there was an immediate interest in finding that this guy was another Islamic radical terrorist, and then some suggestion that he might have been gay himself. Why? I suggest because either of these would shift blame to a group who could be attacked; so would suggestions that he was mentally ill (frankly, for someone to do that, he would have to be mentally ill in some sense, but the vast majority of the mentally ill are no more dangerous to those around them than the average ostensibly well-balanced person). It would shift blame to an “other”. It would not require any consideration that the average man or woman in the street is in some way responsible for this. If he was, for instance, in fact homosexual, if you’re not LGBT, you could say “Oh, it’s a problem within the LGBT community, it’s not MY problem”. You would, of course, be wrong – the problems of the LGBT community are mostly caused by the attitudes of the non-LGBT community, especially the self-hating which this would argue.

As soon as you identify the problem as being an “other”, there are calls to attack that other. That is where I see a massively widespread malaise in American society, exemplified by the products of its entertainment industry; the solution to a problem is to go and shoot the person or persons responsible. In this thinking, the solution to gun violence is more guns – “It wouldn’t have happened if there had been a good guy with a gun in there” is often the refrain. Well, in fact, there was a “good guy with a gun” in there this time, and he wasn’t able to stop it, and that has been the case in quite a few previous mass shootings.

It seems to me that unless you have a society which doesn’t think that the immediate answer to violence is more violence, there is little or no hope of any change. As Erin Walthen says, “A nation so filled with hate should not be this well armed”; however, this is a nation which is already very well armed and which has the Second Amendment and the bizarre decision in DC. -v- Heller to cope with. 

It is also, however, a nation in which a very sizeable proportion of the population want to see themselves as “a good guy with a gun”, if only to protect themselves and their families. I think there are among them a very significant number who see a gun as a penis substitute, but that is perhaps too controversial. However, that brings me back to Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station post; it may be almost practically correct that the only thing which stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but that is not the whole story – the only thing (aside from fear of the consequences and the occasional act of heroic nonviolent resistance) which stops a bad guy with a gun is a very highly trained, well practiced, responsible and well balanced guy with a gun (and even that sometimes isn’t enough). So limit the ownership of guns to people who are all of those things, and accepting that people will stray from this, make the consequences sufficiently severe to deter as many as possible. And, in conscience, ban automatic and semi-automatic guns completely except for the military (particularly those which can have a bump stock attached…). There is no justification for these in hunting, and they multiply killing capacity immensely.

There, however, I think the States (and Jim) have a problem. America already locks people up for a very long time and in great numbers compared with other developed nations, and from everything I have seen in prisons which are extremely unpleasant environments. If you’re going to get life in a US jail anyhow (and sentences of as little as ten years may well look like life to some people, and not necessarily just those of advanced years) then a bit more for having a gun, or a lot more for killing someone with it, doesn’t work very well as a deterrent. Also, “suicide by cop” begins to look remarkably attractive when the alternative is US jail for a very long time. There are many other reasons for penal and sentencing reform in the States, but this is definitely one.

What I would like, however, is to convince American Christians that Christianity is in it’s very essence a nonviolent religion, and that a good Christian should not be owning or carrying a gun for personal protection, and should at the very least think twice and three times before joining any service such as the police or military which requires you to carry a weapon. In this, I fancy the Quakers and the Mennonites are the ones who have probably got things right in their scriptural interpretations. America is, by the standards of the UK, overwhelmingly Christian. That would be a good start, even if the peculiar attachment of Americans to the right to bear arms affects the rest of their society. You can do this even without amending the constitution again (or even re-interpreting it more sensibly…)

If you’re American, please take this seriously. It’s hard for the rest of us to watch you killing yourselves.

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They toil not, neither do they spin…

May 14th, 2016

I see that FiveThirtyEight has caught on to the fact that manufacturing jobs will never return. Sadly, they seem to think that the solution is to create jobs in service industries, and that’s a problem.

The thing is, manufacturing jobs are the easiest to automate; as the article notes, manufacturing is actually returning to the USA, but it’s largely automated and doesn’t provide the number of jobs it used to. Low level clerical jobs are the next easiest; very many of those have similarly disappeared with the advent of computerised workplaces. Customer service is in the process of going the same way; my bank (for instance) has successfully persuaded customers to do most of their banking online, where computer systems handle the work which a load of clerks and counter staff would once have done, and I hear that even burger flipping is in danger, as automated short-order cooks are being trialed at the moment. In the office, vending machines have largely replaced the tea lady.

When I retired from the law, the need for secretaries had diminished somewhat, but also I noted that expert systems were starting to take over some of the work which qualified lawyers had previously done. There are now surgical robots – admittedly these are currently remotely operated by real surgeons, but it is only a matter of time… Professional jobs are by no means safe either.

How about the entertainment industry? There is still going to be a huge demand for people singing, acting, doing variety turns, surely? Well, to an extent that’s true, though the popularity a few years ago of Max Headroom and the ubiquity of CGI makes me wonder how long it is going to be before we have the first completely computer-generated “live action” film or television. However, whereas 100 years ago, there were performers in every town (and often every pub or bar) churning out music and drama, now the use of TV and film means that only relatively few performers actually get to make a decent living. Everyone wants to listen, say, to David Bowie or Prince, not to their local Joe Bloggs or Fred Smith. The market for actual performers is much more limited than it once was, and is likely to shrink further, and even the very popular are now having difficulty with the internet getting round copyright so that significant parts of their output ends up free.

Of course, these last two categories require substantial natural ability as well as training, and even if they were boom areas, most of the population would be unlikely to be able to do the jobs as one would wish them done. I pause for a moment for a sideswipe at government policy for some time – it is pointless expanding education willy-nilly in the apparent belief that you can train anyone to be a brain surgeon if you take enough time and they are dedicated enough, and that is just not true. At the moment we are merely piling on courses for the sake of courses to “qualify” people for jobs which they could learn by doing them in a couple of weeks.

We are progressively making the majority of humanity redundant.

Or, at least, we are making them redundant as workers. Our capitalist system is predicated on there being a vast class of consumers, as otherwise there is no market for all the goods and services. The redundant, of course, do no work and therefore do not get paid – and therefore can’t consume. Eventually, the whole system will break down – and I think there are significant signs that it is doing that already.

It has to be time for us to break the linkage between money and work. Efficiency and automation mean that we can produce enough to supply even the vast population we now have, but not to keep them in work. Time, I think, to look very closely at the concept of a national guaranteed income, or an “universal income”.

There will be a few collateral effects of this. One is that, provided with enough income for the basic necessities of life, no-one need take a job who does not want it. Without the need for labour unions, suddenly workers will have a negotiating strength which they have always historically lacked. The conditions (including pay) of work will have to be sufficient to entice people to do the work. Granted, there need be no minimum  wage – people may find out that a job well done is satisfaction in and of itself, or that even a very small additional discretionary income is worth the effort. Those who wish to turn their minds to art or literature will no longer need to starve in a garret; the inventor or innovator will be free to put in the long hours working out their idea into something practical without the fear of destitution.

Another is that companies will be forced to consider that having people able to buy their products is a good in and of itself; this might just persuade them that in order to gain access to a market, they would need to pay tax. Governments, on the other hand, would no longer need to beg, plead, cajole and bribe companies into employing workers in their countries. Instead, they need only point out that “we have a market of 60 million people” (or whatever is the current figure for your population) to induce a company to come and trade – and pay taxes. They may well, of course, also want to site their manufacturing in the country where they trade; after all, there will be no minimum wage, and lower transport costs!

I will continue looking with huge interest at Switzerland and Holland, which seem to the the countries most likely to be the first to implement such a scheme.

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Satan, yeast and seeds

May 13th, 2016

Professor Kathryn Tanner has, at the point I write this, just finished her series of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University. They are well worth a listen; I don’t think I have heard a better skewering of market capitalism as it functions in the 21st century, under the neo-liberal philosophy which seems to have captured the thinking of politicians throughout the West (and a fair proportion of the East).

She does, of course, come to the conclusion that market capitalism (particularly finance-led market capitalism) is profoundly contrary to Christian principles. It encourages greed where Jesus commands care for the disadvantaged. It encourages competition where Jesus commands care for community. It grinds down workers where Paul counsels that labourers are worthy of their hire and should not be short-changed. It considers people as units of production and units of consumption where Jesus sees each as being unique creations of our Heavenly Father, with supreme worth (more valuable than a sparrow or a lily, indeed).

It also focuses on short term financial gain to the exclusion of building a lasting community, and there there might be a temptation to remember Jesus counselling that we give no thought for tomorrow and think that he approved a short term viewpoint. However, he also placed this in terms of dependence on God for our basic sustenance (daily bread) and, in looking forward to the Kingdom of God on earth, assumes, in my view, that that Kingdom will be structured to give everyone their basic sustenance, not to look for a “fast buck”. A fast buck is, of course, an idol, and we cannot serve God and Mammon, as I expanded upon recently (see link below).

Prof. Tanner does not, it seems to me, take quite the same view I do of the requirements of the Christian life; she works within the paradigm of the “salvation history” which I do not really subscribe to. However, I have recently finished Richard Beck’s new book “Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted” which among other things works from the framework set up by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink which has made the real existence of forces of evil make sense to me again.

This has enabled me to identify the finance-led market capitalism of today as “the System of Satan”. Merely calling it idolatry is not sufficient for me, given the all-encompassing and subtle power of this system and the fact that most of us see no real alternative, in particular our politicians.

I think Prof. Tanner could do with an element of this more powerful way of condemning the system; while at the point of writing I have not yet heard her final (and summing up) lecture, so far she has merely set out in a factual and resigned way the undesirable features of the system, and commented that there is no longer any competing structure available for us to prefer, communism being widely considered to have failed (and inasmuch as it requires a command economy directed by a few people in power, this is true). Marx, it seems, was a brilliant diagnostician of the weaknesses of capitalism, but his prescription was a failure…

She has not so far considered any of the anarchist thinking which might (as long as it is not anarcho-capitalism) provide another way; her solution seems to be to work within the system but not to subscribe to it’s encompassing ethos, not to be drawn into belief in it, accepting that we live in a fallen world.

I do not think this is enough, though it is a start. We should certainly adopt small measures of protest against the way the system works, but we should also at least hope for a future in which the Kingdom, and it’s non-capitalist economics, grows out of that – as Jesus suggested, like a leaven or a mustard seed. Anything we can do to hasten the leavening or the growth of the seed should be tried.

And maybe, just maybe, we will see the start of the Kingdom coming in glory…

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Give to him who asks of you

April 7th, 2016

Ian Hislop, who is occasionally more a journalist than a satirist, presented a programme on BBC this evening entitled “Workers or Shirkers”, looking at how the Victorians dealt with the poor, and the question of whether and how they should be provided for, and in particular whether we should discriminate between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It was a fairly balanced presentation, with some shocking moments, such as finding out that Ian Duncan Smith, lately in charge in the UK of cutting and denying benefits to the poor while claiming to be “helping them” (by which he meant providing them with the incentive of starvation to go and find employment),  actually has some feelings for the poor.

OK, I maybe jest very slightly there, but not a lot. There was quite a bit on the system of workhouses instituted in the 19th century (and still in some cases active in my lifetime) which were deliberately designed to be worse than anything on the outside which didn’t actually kill you immediately. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. It still had a rather sinister reputation in my childhood, and people of my grandparent’s generation often had a terror of “going on the parish”, as people tended to call becoming dependent on the workhouses. Actually, by that time, few people alive had actually experienced the workhouses in their full horror, as they had by and large become far more civilised as the 20th century progressed, and innovations like National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had seriously reduced the need for them. A small plaque on the rather decorative former gatehouse (one of the few attractive features, and rightly preserved) commemorates its origin. I’m perhaps unusual in that the mere name of the street makes me remember the system every time I pass along it…

The workhouse system was definitely more shocking than IDS, though many of his and his successor’s pronouncements make me wonder quite how close to a new workhouse system our current government would like to get.

The programme perhaps doesn’t go back quite far enough. The various Poor Laws which were administered initially through the parishes had become necessary because charitable giving utterly failed to meet the need (and that in a country which was in those days at least avowedly something over 95% Christian). It did, however, follow through the initial institution of the Welfare State here, and adverted to the fact that even a Labour government faced with the Great Depression decided that it needed to cut back on welfare (what was not mentioned is that there was also a national debt dwarfing the one we now see in percentage of GDP due to having fought the First World War…) An obvious parallel with current conditions was not  explicitly drawn but implied, leaving it more difficult to point to all the areas in which finances then were massively worse than they are now.

The conclusion? We are, it seems, hopelessly confused between a desire only to benefit the deserving and an impulse to correct suffering without reference to merit.

But then, we are not any more a 95% Christian country, more like a 7% Christian one. If we were, I could point to a very clear injunction contained in Matthew 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”. Jesus says nothing about asking why someone is in need, nor about asking whether they deserve help, or even whether we should check what they will spend it on. We are just to give whenever asked (and there are a large set of other quotations available to back this up).

However, I do notice that in at least one church in York are cards encouraging people not to give money to people begging on the street (of whom there are regrettably quite a few), but instead to give to charities helping them. Yes, I thoroughly approve of giving to those charities (and I do, regularly), and that church does do excellent work helping feed the homeless, but those cards seem to me basically contrary to Jesus’ command. If I have money, I will give something to them direct, whatever the church says. And it should not be saying that.

Of course, looking back at the history of helping the poor, as Hislop does, makes it pretty clear that the Church has never been very good at following this particular command of Jesus. Suspending judgment, it seems, is even more difficult than parting with your money.

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