Category Archives: Politics & Society

Is Society Sick?

I heard it said once that people who are overly competitive are showing signs of insanity. It was a native American tribe who held this view, and it is a view that I immediately sympathised with, even if I would never have used the word ‘insanity’. Many of my strongest political convictions are reflected in this view; that homelessness and extreme poverty should be eradicated, that all people have value to contribute within society, and that extreme capitalist and individualistic thinking has corrupted our pursuit of happiness.

However it was when I set up the Democratic Reform Party that I really started thinking about our mental/spiritual health as a society. The more I learned, the more it seemed to me that our entire socio-Anorexiceconomic system is designed to defeat itself. We are taught in homes and schools alike what “success” actually is, not explicitly of course; but we nevertheless emerge at the end with three distinct ideas: the first idea of success is fame and fortune; the second is a highly paid job, a house, a marriage, and kids; and the third is to become a hero, but we are warned away from this latter route by dint of the fact that for every hero there are a thousand failures. In fact a quote of Dorris Lessing springs to mind:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do.”

Through this indoctrination we, in our ‘careers’, are encouraged to pursue one thing above all others: money. It is polyp_cartoon_Rat_Racethis pursuit that drives so much of us into competition, that eats up our free time, limits the pursuit of leisure, results in more emphasis on career than social relationships, and indeed encourages us to move away from friends and family in the name of money. So it encourages us to spend more resources on ourselves, and also in ways which, statistically speaking, are in fact more likely to limit rather than increase, happiness.

Since this experience I have not learned anything which has shaken these ideas and thoughts from my mind. I’ve known many friends with severe depression, several of whom have attempted suicide. I received a message only two days ago from the mother of a close friend, saying that my friend needed help. I have even experienced the loss of one of my family members in a manner which seems to me certain to be linked to the depression which plagued his mind. It was hard writing that. It’s been quite some time now, and I have talked about it, if fleetingly; yet even a sentence brings tears to my eyes.

So yesterday, when I heard Tim Macartney (social entrepreneur and leadership expert) talking at the London School of Economics about the ‘Children’s Fire’, I thought that this is definitely something I wanted to blog about. The ‘Children’s Fire’ was literally a small fire placed at the heart of decision-making councils in some ancient native American tribes. It served as a reminder to those present that no decision should be passed which might harm a child, irrelevant of whether that child be human or animal.

Tim Macartney told his audience that he had once introduced this idea to a council of leaders, and been told that it was a little naive, and perhaps even childish, to think that we could employ the same idea today. Yet Tim responded by asking the audience to think in the exact opposite manner. He asked them to think of a society where that fire was never used.

“Don’t you think” he said, “that this society without the children’s fire, is sick?”

A few years ago I read a report explaining that clinical depression would, on current trends, become the world’s second most disabling condition behind heart disease by around 2020. I felt saddened, and immediately wanted to raise money for charities working to help people with depression. Yet I, like many others I guess, held hope that the trend would slow. In fact however, it sped up. In late 2013 experts reported in the journal PLOS Medicine that depression had already become the second biggest cause of disability in the world! You can see the BBC report here:

Based on the work of psychiatrists, psychologists and academics such as Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, this trend in fact seems to be much broader than depression. They published a book in 2007, arguing that the rapid increase of mental illnesses since 1750 was an invisible plague that urgently needs to be tackled. The prevalence of insanity for example, according to their research, was once considerably less than one case per 1,000 in the total population, and yet by today has risen beyond five cases in 1,000. If true, the implications of such findings are quite scary.


Unfortunately the data over the period analysed by Torrey and Miller is sketchy, and so we can’t be sure of the validity of this argument. However we can be a lot surer of records gathered since the 60s and 70s. Based predominantly on census data from the period stretching back to 1971, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that a staggering 97% of communities studied in the UK have become more fragmented and “rootless” over this period, and also levels of “anomie” (social instability caused by erosion of standards and values) have risen significantly. In the US, over a similar period, it was also found that the rate at which Americans invite people into their homes has declined by 45%. Indeed findings such as these are not hard to find. Robert Putnam, in ‘Bowling Alone’, reported significantly increasing levels of dis-cohesion and social fragmentation. Cacioppo & Patrick published similar findings in 2008. Carne Ross had a significant rant about such statistics in his book published in 2011, ‘The Leaderless Revolution’. Professor Mark Stein drew the conclusion in a ‘Psychoanalysis of the Financial Crisis’ in 2012 that Western Society has been behaving neurotically for 20 years ( And I could cite many more sources!

Statistically speaking, happiness is no higher today than it was in the 1950s. And what’s worse is that our replacement for it i.e. the pursuit of money, isn’t helping us either. Since the 1970s the average income of the most wealthy has skyrocketed. But the median income of the average person has if anything fallen slightly. What does that suggest to you? Is our system broken? Is society itself sick?

Of course we could take any time or place in history, list the problems, and somehow come out with an argument that society is sick. So maybe these problems aren’t nearly so huge as they seem. But to me personally, they certainly seem to be pretty huge. How do they seem to you? Is society sick?

Does the State Have Real Power to Intervene in the Economy Today?

The latest Journal of Labour Economics (Uni of Chicago Press) features an essay entitled “The Detaxation of Overtime Hours: Lessons from the French Experiment.” The data does show an increase in the number of overtime hours claimed, which was the intention of the law. However data gathered about the number of hours worked (the particular focus is on trans-border workers, who should theoretically come to work less overtime than French workers after October 2007) shows that:

“The detaxation of overtime hours has had no significant effect on length of time worked.”

The law did nothing to change earlier laws or regulations concerning the working week (which was capped prior to 2007). It simply changed the cost of working overtime. And as such, according to the authors (Pierre Cahuc and Stephane Carcillo), despite the popularity of this same policy in other European countries (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg), its result is simply to aid tax optimisation.

French 35 Hr Working WeekWithin the context of the French socio-economy this article and argument may strike you as being one among many overtly, and obviously political manoeuvres in what is today a highly divided society between the left and right wings of politics. However, there is a wider point at play, and a more international one. In an increasingly globalised world (and by globalised I actually refer to devolution as well as internationalisation), how much power do state politicians truly have over the economy (it’s a big enough topic already so please stick to economics if you comment)? And if such powers are different in extent to how they were in the past, then what is the shape of that trend? Are we on a plateau today? Or will the future see politicians at the state level become completely redundant?

According to a growing consensus, the result of modern globalisation has been a dominance of the markets and capitalists over the power of democracy and state governance. But in many ways this consensus is a shame, because it means that few people discuss the extent of government power anymore; they only discuss whether it is good or bad that it has declined, and will continue to do so. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that globalisation is not always the prime culprit behind such reduced power.

In the above example Cahuc and Carcillo do not argue that exempting overtime income from tax is ineffective because the global markets have a more powerful impact on the amount of overtime demanded or supplied. They argue that it is ineffective because it ignores some of the most fundamental principles of fiscal planning. If taxation is to be efficient then it must define a tax base that the authorities can easily verify, and checking the amount of overtime actually worked, as opposed to how much is declared, is almost impossible for the Tax Authorities and/or withholding agent, to accurately verify. Indeed, although they do not mention it in the article, one could go to the very roots of the subject. In ‘Wealth of Nations’ Adam Smith proposed four canons (principles) by which tax can be assessed: efficiency, fairness, certainty and convenience. It could be argued that exempting overtime income fails all four of these.

  1. Efficiency has been discussed already. It requires an easily identifiable tax base.
  2. On the matter of fairness, some have less verifiable hours than others, and often these people tend to be richer to start off with.
  3. The criteria of certainty is all about simplicity. The more complex the tax system becomes, and the less that the general public know about which parts of their income are taxed in which way, the less certain everything becomes.
  4. Convenience is about how easy it is to find out what’s owed, and how easy it is to collect the money. As already discussed, overtime hours hours not recorded but actually worked, is incredibly difficult to actually check.

Failures in these four areas suggest that rather than globalisation, it may often be sheer incompetence on the government’s side which causes an ineffectiveness of economic intervention. Clearly this is a subjective view, and it’s not necessarily one that I am advancing. However remember that the term ‘globalisation’ was barely even discussed before the late eighties. And yet the ability of governments to manage, plan and/or regulate their economies has been limited since well before.

Policy Area How did it Affect Economic Governance?
The Rise of Monetarism & Fall of Keynesianism Since the late seventies Keynesian macro-management has been largely discredited, Monetary Policy has taken precedence over Fiscal Policy, and Monetary Policy decision making has been outsourced to independent Central Banks.
Tax Resistance The ‘race to the bottom’, in which governments compete to attract rich residents with low rates of tax, is not the only reason for tax resistance. Think about the Boston Tea Party – what started the American Revolution was essentially tax resistance. And what about Hoover’s tax cuts in 1929? He cut marginal tax rates to the lowest point in modern history, a long time before modern globalisation.
Privatisation Speaking historically, privatisation was less about increased efficiency, and more about simple costs. Looking at examples like British Steel, privatisation occurred prior to globalisation, and was implemented as a way of getting rid of subsidies from the Exchequer.
Moves to Restrict Social Provisions and Benefits These also started prior to the modern period of globalisation. Extensive taxation, designed to redistribute wealth from poor to rich, was rejected by electorates around the world, particularly, and probably firstly, in the US.

According to Robert Skidelsky, an academic often referred to as today’s most prominent biographer of John Maynard Keynes:

“Globalisation is as much a consequence, as a cause of declining government power.”

Such a statement starts one thinking about the Japanese fiscal stimulation of the 90s, and those employed by many Economic Intervention Antisince the 08-09 financial crisis. It brings to mind the rise of China. And it also brings to mind left wing leaders from Latin America like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. In 2005 the BBC reported that out of 350 million people in Economic Intervention ProLatin America, 3 out of 4 lived in countries with left leaning Presidents. It’s become so significant a trend in Latin America that it has been given a name – “the pink tide”. And despite what many have said about their success, there have been successes.

So, does the state have real power to intervene in the economy in the modern, globalised world of today?

Human Conflicts come from Structural Disequilibrium

Sigmund Freud assumed that humanity bares a sinister instinct of self-destruction, which acts as the counterpart to all other instincts preserving life. It’s a psychological argument that human agency is at fault for all conflict, and as K.Waltz (Man, the State and War) once said, in trying to explain everything with psychology, such proponents ended up explaining nothing; for how can we stop two innately violent people fighting, other than by keeping them apart? Konrad Lorenz (scientist and author of ‘On Aggression’) put such weight on the importance of agency that he ended his book with the hope that we will evolve beyond our more base instincts.

“I believe that reason can and will exert a selection pressure in the right direction. I believe that this, in the not too distant future, will endow our descendants with the faculty of fulfilling the greatest and most beautiful of all commandments [that love and friendship should embrace all of humanity].”

Your FaultSuch arguments see the locus of the important causes of war to be found in the nature and behaviour of humanity. Confucius put it even more simply when he said

“There is deceit and cunning and from these wars arise.”

It’s actually a little bit of a blame game. But what if we weren’t programmed to be violent? What if violence and tensions arose only as a result of imbalances/disequilibria between different structures?

The causes of civil war was the topic of my undergrad dissertation. It was in fact a terrible piece as I only had a few days to write it up. But my research was extensive, and I hadn’t since challenged my basic premise that no single cause of war should be highlighted above the others – until this last weekend. Up until then I separated individual agency from the structures that they lived within, and so had to admit that our innate tendency towards violence could be one explanation of conflict. But I was wrong.

I was refuting (or trying to) an argument that we should base our diets on what the eco-system permits, by arguing that morality should supersede economic logic. I said that each way of thinking, whether it be economic in the thought process employed, or moral, or whatever else, is a lens through which we see the world. Sometimes, after an event has taken place, someone might call you stupid, and provide you with an argument that in hindsight seems obvious, but for some reason you completely overlooked at the time. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid; you were capable of thinking of that on your own. You just weren’t seeing through that particular lens at the time. Put simply, we don’t employ all lenses equally, because we have built them as internal structures within our mind, and used them since birth to make decisions.

lenses through which we see the worldIn every day life we are required to think economically, politically and socially. It’s essential to the tasks that modern economies expect us to perform. And yet it’s quite hard to discover who is moral and who is not. Perhaps more scarily, for many societies it’s as socially acceptable to joke about not being moral as it is to joke about not being clever. And when we do hear someone joking about not being very clever, we usually have an instinctive judgement reaction. We’re able to agree or disagree, even if we don’t actually say what we think. But what about when someone jokes about not being a good person? Then, it can be very hard to judge. Our moral lens is simply less frequently used than our economic one, and as a result it’s slower to adapt.

Right now you exist within an economy. You probably go to work, pay the bills, pay your taxes. In short, you lead quite a rigid lifestyle economically speaking. And yet put into the state of nature, with no economic structure in sight, you’re very likely to start thinking in terms of survival. ‘OK. I need food, water, shelter, safety, warmth.’ Given such a scenario even a devout moral vegetarian will become immediately aware that their eco-system has changed. They’re placed firmly back into the food chain, and will probably hunt and eat meat. But, will they have spent time to make a moral justification? Or will they be fine with the economic one, that their survival rests on their eating meat? Perhaps eventually that person will think of a truly moral justification. But it takes more time for that moral structure to adapt, and thus our immediate economic actions aren’t always the most moral.

It was when I made this argument about the different modes of thinking, and the speed of adaptation for each, that I realised I was thinking structurally. And when in the above example one structure adapts at a different speed to another, there arises a disequilibrium between the internal moral structure for decision-making, and the internal economic one. When the need arises we do what we have to, even if the next day we may feel guilty. Or in other words, these lenses through which we perceive the world are structural components of our thought processes, just as the economy, state, society, and international arena are all structural components of the world order. When those structures are imbalanced, or moving at different speeds, the result is an outpouring of emotions, and potentially aggressive behaviour (this behaviour can be aimed inwards or outwards). Just because we have a natural potential for aggressive behaviour does not mean that natures forces our hand. Even the actions of individual agencies are ruled by structures.

Just in the interests of explanation think about an economy which rapidly grows, while the state structure remains relatively stagnant, and although social expectations rise, little socially actually changes. Russia at the outbreak of the First World War fits this example perfectly. Socio-political expectations rose along with the economic reality, and yet when these expectations weren’t met, frustration and aggression was the result. So when it entered WW1 it entered with severe structural disequilibria, and when it left, it did so to civil war.

Plate SpinningThe best way to think about how structures cause conflict is to picture a game of Plate Spinning (a game where plates are kept from falling to the floor by spinning them atop of a series of poles). If one of the plates begins to spin at a slower speed than all of the others then it begins to wobble. There is an immediate disequilibrium between the different plates, and potential for damage if the plate is allowed to fall. My contention is that each of these plates represents a different structure; or rather each of the poles and people spinning represents a different structure, and the plates represent the visible agencies who are seen to be causing conflict, but are in reality only reacting to structures which have changed their behaviour out of sync with their partners.

What do you think?

21st Century Thought in IR

WW2 VictoryThe effects of World War Two in International Relations are numerous, with only the most obvious below.

  1. The loss of life led to obvious demographic, socio-psychological and economic impacts
  2. Decolonisation after the war led to a re-mapping of the geo-political environment
  3. The international power centre shifted from Europe to the US and USSR
  4. New international bodies emerged e.g. the Bretton Woods Institutions

These effects are well known. Indeed it was the biggest war that humanity has ever experienced, directly involving  over 100 million people, and from more than 30 different countries. So such effects are even expected.

However, one of the most enduring impacts of WW2 has also been one of the least talked about: the entrenchment of political thought. Appeasement is now seen as wrong. There is seen to be no choice other than capitalism or socialism, democracy or dictatorship and liberalism or conservatism; when in reality the number of options that we have is far far larger. And all of these entrenchments seem to based upon two dangerous assumptions: the assumption of knowledge, and the assumption of righteousness i.e. the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’, the subject(s) of contemplation, are always in the right.

It could be argued that we have always held these assumptions, and that they are an implicit part of human nature. And yet not only are they very illiberal and non-cosmopolitan assumptions to hold; it is also a fairly safe thing to say that there have been more conflicts since WW2 than before, year on year. The U. of Michigan’s “Correlates of War” project documents every conflict since 1816, and according to their calculations
there have been a total of 194 actual “wars” between 1945 and 2001, and that does not include the more than 3000 different disputes that occurred in the period. So was it just circumstance that caused these polarisations, divides and tensions? Or was there a fundamental change in the way we think?

The American philosopher Avital Ronell believes that increased moralistic interventions abroad do stem from such assumptions.

The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness… A relation without relation, because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them! You think oh! They are doing this or this.. they’re the axis of evil…let’s drop some bombs!. But, if you don’t know, don’t understand this alterity, it’s so other that you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding; then you have to let it live.”

According to Derrida we cannot be moral if we think that we are in fact moral. In other words, if you’re arrogant enough to think that you’re fulfilling what Peter Singer would call your moral obligations to help others, then you’re not questioning yourself enough, and not pushing yourself enough. Thus we could push the argument of Avital Ronell still further (since she cited Derrida’s above argument when saying the above), to suggest that the increase of military interventions in international relations marks a decline in international morality.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the notion that we are becoming less moral. After all, we don’t need to know someone else to kill them; indeed being able to kill someone when you do have such knowledge seems even more immoral to many people. We can kill instead based on an educated guess. In fact humans act on guesswork all the time. What Ronell is really saying is a values statement that when we know the risks are large, and yet the probabilities of reaching our desired outcome are unknown, we should be risk averse. Just because liberal interventionists are less risk averse, or choose to weigh the unknown probability of success against the unknown probability that more will die if intervention is not carried out, it does not make them less moral than non-interventionists. And indeed the opposite argument could also be made.

Assume NothingThe more pertinent question therefore, is whether these assumptions of knowledge and righteousness are more present, and/or having a greater impact on international affairs today or not. After all, modern examples seem very easy to find. It is why the logic behind why Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ seems so compelling. It is the reason why despite the fact that the world is becoming increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, we see signs of the ‘other’ everywhere. It is the logic behind liberal interventionism, the interventions in the Middle East, Zionist militarism, and even the calls from those inside the affected countries e.g. Syria, for outside help.

Whatever its source, they are dangerous assumptions to hold if we let them dominate twenty-first century thought. The extent to which this is true can be seen in the handling of Russia’s Crimean intervention. The calls are not for Russia to come to the negotiation table, delay the annexation of Crimea, or organise a new referendum conducted under UN supervision. These options are seen as weak, and a form of appeasement, which, despite the fact that Hitler is dead, would only create a new Hitler. So instead, the calls on Russia are for them to simply back down, reject their long cultural history of expansionism and pan-Slavism, and see them adopt the culture and tactics of the United States – the single country which it would most humiliate Russia, and particularly Putin, to be seen emulating. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in 1919, arguing how the world’s tough approach to Germany would cause trouble. And of course he was right. Are we learning the wrong lesson(s) from history?

Do you believe that the assumptions of knowledge and righteousness dominate 21st century diplomatic thought more than they did prior to WW2? What has changed that led us here? And where will it lead us in the future?

The Party System

Are political parties a good thing?

Do they formalise groups that will naturally emerge, and thus make politicians more accountable? Or do they entrench group identities, when individuals forming groups would be more pragmatic?

sexy_elections_by_jackbliss-d5nbwseDo they mitigate the populist effects of everyone being able to vote for individuals, and thus avoid the style of democracy which exists in Argentina today, or that which existed in Ancient Rome? Or do they entrench the status quo, resist change, and keep the elites in power?

Do they homogenize society into opposing groups, when in reality everyone has so many different identities and issues of importance that the divisions are grossly exaggerated? Or do they bring competition into the political realm, and ensure that there is always (assuming we’re not talking about a one party or dominant party system) a strong opposition group to hold the government to account?

Do they blur issues and encourage a lack of transparency? Or do they ensure that no matter how little voters know about their electoral candidates they can at least know their ideological positions based on the party they stand for?

Do they provide stability by avoiding the obvious difficulties of maintaining a government composed of independents coming from different positions? Or do they disenfranchise the minorities?

The idea of a party system is surprisingly rather modern. It comes largely from the work of nineteenth century Europeans such as Ostrogorsky and Bryce. In discussing whether such a system was a good thing or not, Ostrogorsky said that:

“As soon as a party, even if created for the noblest object perpetuates itself, it tends to degeneration”

I find this incredibly insightful, for it is how many people think today, and also one of the biggest weaknesses of the party system. Bernard Shaw, in ‘the Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, suggested that parties are always seeking primarily to get themselves into power. They do 2 party systemthis, he reasoned, because they believe that their party will help the people more than the opposition party would. So noble reasons. But, Shaw argues that it is precisely for this reason that many people end up voting contrary to what they actually believe. He gives an example of a Conservative Member of Parliament being presented with a bill proposed by his own party, which he finds distasteful. The MP ends up voting for it in order to avoid the perception that his/her government is no longer in a majority, which he rather exaggeratedly reasons might lead the opposition into government. Meanwhile, he gives another example of an opposition Labour MP, who supports the bill but votes against it, for precisely the opposite reasoning. And thus the belief that being in power will help them affect positive change leads politicians to take decisions which lead to negative changes.

In practice it is usually these ‘realpolitik’ methods which move the hand of governance. The UK Party System didn’t emerge for ideological reasons so much as it did because of the necessities of war. King William III was fighting a war against the French King Louis XIV, and the House of Commons were refusing him supplies, and limiting the fighting potential of his forces. Robert Spencer therefore advised that if the King chose ministers always from the strongest party in the House of Commons, then that party would have to back him through the war. And because it worked, it stayed.

For Bernard Shaw it is the changes that emerged as a result of this system which so weakens the practicable party system. He says that the party system in place at the local level is in fact effective, for it is committee led, and doesn’t require that anybody has to resign after a failed vote or notion.

“The rigidity of the party system, as we have seen, depends on the convention that whenever the Government is defeated on a division in the House, it must ‘appeal to the country’: that is, the Cabinet Ministers must resign  their offices, and the King dissolve the Parliament and have a new one elected.”

Of course today a single defeat does not result in the dissolution of government. But the resignations often do occur. And the trend is further towards, as opposed to away from, these practices. For instance the cross-party consensus at present is to enact a right of recall, so that members of the public can recall the MP that they elected should he/she fail to please them during their elected term. This trend enhances democracy. And yet as Shaw argued, it also encourages fear-led decision-making, and populism as opposed to difficult decision taking about which the public does not have as much information.

Despite the fact that reference to the party system was first found in published print as recently as 1888, I will leave you with the fact that after only a couple of decades this system was already seen as out-dated. In fact in 1920 two famous professors of political science, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, published a Socialist Constitution for the UK. In this constitution they discarded the notion of maintaining the party system within two Houses of Parliament as completely impracticable. They described its existence then, 96 years ago, as a condition of “creeping paralysis”. They proposed in this constitution that we should have one political Parliament, like the present Cabinet style system, and a second, industrial Parliament with a municipal system.

If you had the choice, what system would you propose? Is the party system fit for purpose?

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Is she right?

Margaret MeadMargaret Mead was a twentieth century anthropologist, whose work greatly influenced those campaigning for equal rights in the sixties and seventies. The above quote is perhaps her most famous, and in recent years this message has appeared all over popular media, and throughout much of twenty first century culture.

The 2006 music video for “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback ends with her quote. It’s used in the TV series the West Wing. And it was essentially the central philosophy of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign: “Yes we can. Change we can believe in. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Yet when we’re thinking about these quotes, we’re not thinking about the sorts of changes that President Obama has managed to realise (don’t misunderstand me here; I’m a huge Obama fan). We’re thinking about pivotal changes in human history; the sort that historians are likely to refer back to. In this modern world, can such momentous changes still be realised by a “few caring people”?

As an example, Liberal Interventionism has been one of the hottest topics in the media throughout this century. In 1999 the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his Chicago speech, outlined his doctrine of Liberal Interventionism. And a Liberal Interventionyear later the UK’s intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War was seen as a great success. Furthermore, orders for intervention in Sierra Leone did not come from a huge collective government, but in fact from a renegade Brigadier David Richards, who saw the chance to intervene, and took it without permission. So you could even argue that a few, or even one person, really did change the world here. Subsequent interventions have also been justified on moral grounds e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with much less consensus as to the success of these missions. But more to the point, there has been a common thread throughout each of these interventions. And that thread of logic echoes the thought of American pragmatists, of Japanese leaders during WW2, of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and even right back to the works of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, and is also cited as an intellectual forbearer of ‘realpolitik’. That thread of thought is quite simply, the importance, and dominance, of power.

Hobbes’ method of reasoning provides a good example of this realist motivation for intervention. He started his argument, in his famous work ‘Leviathan’, with a kind of Cartesian thinking. Similar to the way Descartes started with his base assumption that thought proves existence, Hobbes said that as little as we can be sure of, we can at least be sure that humans are attracted to pleasure, and repelled by pain. As we can be sure of this much, said Hobbes, it goes to reason that what we all seek, and will always continue to seek, is the power to act on these attractions and repulsions. It is why he reasoned that in a state of nature life would be “nasty, brutish and short”, since without any kind of civilisation we would all be out to increase our own power.

Why do I use these examples? Because the world’s focus on Ukraine is indicative of all the above. The message from western interveners is that the Russian intervention and referendum in the Crimea was illegitimate, and abused Ukrainian sovereignty i.e. we want to help people, and we believe that we can change the world and make it more peaceful. In reality however, such intervention is both an example of power politics, and also quite frankly playground politics. The Russian intervention bears a lot of similarities to recent Western interventions. It is debatably legal in terms of international law. And although the referendum in Crimea should have been organised in different times, and under the supervision of the UN, I have not heard Westerners suggest this. Instead, they simply reject any sort of referendum, and in a blatantly childish manner, simply assume that what’s needed is a good old fashioned, gun-slinging approach of anti-appeasement i.e. if we show we’re the stronger party, we’ll win; life is a competition and we want to be the biggest bully in the playground.

It’s unlikely much of this is blatant, or even realised. The simple fact that the EU managed to achieve unanimity in deciding that they would impose sanctions on Russia goes to show that Western decision makers do believe they are in the right, and are acting morally. But our resources, and our ability to act, is finite. And what about the places where we can really help? How many children need to be decapitated in the Central African Republic before we intervene there? The UN says there is a real risk of genocide. But how many rapes are needed? How many mutations and acts of torture? How many murders are needed before we even start to think in such a way?

We can't changeThere is no power to gain in the Central African Republic. There is in re-igniting old Cold War tensions. So what would it take for us to change this much? What would it take for countries to actually intervene for moral reasons, as opposed to reasons of power? If Margaret Mead is right, then a few caring people can achieve such a change in international relations, and perhaps, depending on whether you agree with Hobbes, even a change in human nature. Do you think she was right? Are these changes really possible?

Is Freedom an Option?

“O sancta simplicitas! In what strange simplification and falsification man lives!” So begins Nietzsche’s second Nietzsche freedomchapter of “Beyond Good and Evil”. It says that humanity has always contrived to retain its ignorance, so that we might realise “an almost inconceivable freedom”. Indeed to Nietzsche even our thoughts were suspect. For those who call themselves ‘free spirits’ in a philosophical sense are in fact often “glib tongued and scribe-fingered slaves of the democratic taste and its ‘modern ideas’ […] they are not free”.

Just a quick explanation here; note the use of “almost” in Nietzsche’s work. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Nietzsche did not oppose, or dismiss, freedom. To him it was something that we strive towards, but are simply very unlikely to really obtain.

Of course you might question what freedom is. Arendt explained the difficulty of this question well when she said:

“In its simplest form, the difficulty [of defining freedom] may be summed up as the contradiction between our consciousness and conscience, telling us that we are free and hence responsible, and our everyday in the outer world, in which we orient ourselves according to the principle of causality.”

As a philosophical concept freedom is most often discussed with reference to determinism, as its opposite, and moral responsibility as its partner. For if we are not free at all then our actions must be determined. And if we are free, then we must also be morally responsible for our actions. It is from these baselines of the philosophical discussion of freedom that Arendt notices the major difficulties. We all assume that we are morally responsible for our actions, because we at least have an illusion of free will in deciding what to do. And yet analyse it a little deeper, and our thoughts themselves seem to contradict this common sense; for just as when we make excuses, so too in any sense can we say ‘I acted thusly, because X, Y and Z had happened in the past. Had they not, I would have been forced to act differently.’

So there are contradictions. And it’s difficult to define in an objective sense. But even if we have different imaginations as to what it is; we definitely have at least the illusion of freedom/free will. But if nothing comes from nothing, how can we create an illusion of that which truly doesn’t exist? The illusion of freedom must either be an image of a conceptual reality, or at very least a modified version of a very similar concept; and if it is the second, it has since caused us to create the conceptual reality of freedom. So freedom does exist. But is it a real option in our lives? Or is it more as John Dewey said, that our activity results from impulses that emerge spontaneously in response to changes in circumstances?

Illusion-of-FreedomLet’s think. In most of the world escaping into the wild; where only nature would restrict our actions; simply isn’t an option. There isn’t enough wild to escape into, particularly in Europe. So, if we can’t hunt and forage for ourselves, we’re forced to live within those societies and economies which already exist. Within these societies we are forced to go to school throughout our childhood. And within these economies we are forced to either enter the labour market in order to earn enough to survive, or live off the benefits provided by those who feel themselves to be forced into the labour market. Freedom of entry into, and exit out of, the labour market, is not free. Society presents us with commitments that restrict our geographical location, creates expectations that further limit our options in the job market, and creates the economic demand which dictates what careers are going to pay. Flexible and part time roles aren’t allows offered, and thus to take a job we are usually forced to spend most of our time in the job. The competitive economy forces employers to work their employees hard enough that during their free time, many people are too tired to properly look after themselves by exercising or cooking healthy food. In order to stay alive we need a place to live, and to pay bills that often leave us with less than enough cash to freely pursue what we want during that limited amount of free time that we have. We are even imprisoned by society’s desires. Who reading this can’t remember comparing themselves to other classmates at school, and hoping that they would earn more in later life? Those people we call ‘weird’ are in most cases those people who for some reason don’t desire what society encourages us to desire e.g. money.

We could even go so far as to question what freedom is, for usually we talk of freedom within nature. But is not nature the biggest prison of all? Kant argued that space, time and causality are categories used by the human mind to interpret experience, and so in this sense physics and biology themselves limit what we are able to think, for they provide a finite, defined number of tools with which we may think. And if you ascribe to the Newtonian view of nature as being like a machine, or Spinoza’s view of freedom as an illusion, then we could say that even the most minute of human actions is determined.

What do you think? Is everything pre-determined? Is, as Spinoza argued, the only freedom that we have the ability to see the world as it is and say yes to it? Does the probabilistic nature of reality mean that because everything is not determined, then we are free to choose between some limited, finite options? Do you think that freedom really is an option, and that it can be enhanced by politicians reforming the socio-political economic structures? Or do you think, as Jean-Paul Sartre did, that “man is condemned to be free [because…] he did not create himself and not only is he free to choose, but he must choose.”

What is it to be civilised?

In fact this is an old debate from back in 2010. But I thought it could do with reviving. Feel free to check out the old debate here.

After giving a number of anthropological examples to explain what civilisation is not, Clive Bell (art critic and philosopher of art), writing in 1928, said:

“I think we must take it as settled that neither a sense of the rights of property, nor candour, nor cleanliness, nor belief in God, the future life and eternal justice, nor chivalry, nor chastity, nor patriotism even is amongst the distinguishing characteristics of civilisation, which is, nevertheless, a means to good and a potent one.”

funny-civilized-uncivilized-boat-trashIt seemed quite easy for Clive to refute the notion that one or two traits might be unique to civilised societies. And yet he found himself agreeing with a soldier who said this to him:

“I can’t tell you what civilisation is, but I can tell you when a state is said to be civilised. People who understand these things assure me that for hundreds of years Japan has had an exquisite art and a considerable literature, but the newspapers never told us that Japan was highly civilised till she had fought and beaten a first-class European power.”

This does not mean to say that power is a sign of civilisation either however. As Clive rightly said, few people would describe the eastern tribes and ‘barbarians’ who overran the Roman Empire, or the Tartars who overthrew the Sung Empire, to be civilised. Indeed we often think of fairness and civilisation as intrinsically linked. And yet in the era of Social Darwinism it was quite popular to say “leave it to nature”. They would say that true civilisation would only come when the weak are left to die, and it is formally recognised that might is right.

So what did Clive conclude about what civilisation is? He reached his conclusion by making assumptions about which societies were civilised and which were not (Periclean Athens and 18th century Paris seemed to be ranked number one and two), and then drawing a list of similarities and peculiarities. He used this assumption of the existence of both to prove that civilisation is not natural, but rather a product of education. And he did seem to think that the idea of what it is to be civilised stays constant throughout time. However he recognised that for those who don’t buy into his assumptions then agreement might not be found.

Do you agree with him? Can we distinguish what is civilised from what is not? And if so how do we do this? What is it to be civilised?

To what extent is innovation collective?

Let’s not re-create the wheel they say, as if the wheel were one individual innovation, thought by a single great thinker from our ancestry: the genius cave man!

Genius cavemanMost of human history in fact seems to have been analysed this way (with a focus on great individuals) until relatively recently. Take the study of leadership as an example. Its first spot in the limelight as a subject of its own was with the Great Man theories of the 1840s. Subsequently, the subject’s theories have shifted through traits theories, behavioural theories, contingency based theories, charismatic based theories, and now only recently to more collective forms of leadership which, for example, take the followers into account as well.

None of these theories were ‘stupid’, and in fact despite the reduced popularity of the great man theories in the field of leadership, they have permeated a great deal of our culture. Think about the big events that you learnt in school history lessons; there were probably a few significant individuals at the heart of each study. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar; the list goes on and on. Indeed we seem obsessed with individuals across all subjects. Think about English, and Shakespeare probably pops into mind. Music; Beethoven and Mozart. Science; Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Maths; Pythagoras. Etc. It makes sense for us to link significant ideas with their proponents. And so you can see how the Great Man theories of the 1840s became popular. However the growing force of pragmatism is forcing these emphases into the history books as well. For what use is it to memorise a list of great names? Just as in leadership, so too in other studies, we are becoming much less interested in who did what years ago, and much more in how we can do those things ourselves.

However, it may also be that this move is more logical and truthful than simply pragmatic. Einstein, for instance, wrote the general and special laws of relativity. But could he have done this without the help of Max Telmud (a student who introduced him to several difficult topics), his teachers at Zurich university, the authors of those books that he read (and he read a lot), and indeed the entire advancement of science up until that point in history?! I could have extended this list, but hopefully you get the point. To give an other example; shortly into this century a broadsheet newspaper concluded that Marx was the most significant political thinker of all times. Whether or not you agree with this, it would be impossible to deny that a significant amount of what he said, was widely known and talked about when he was writing. Neither did Marx even try to deny it. For instance he started his academic career as a Hegelian, and this is where his concept of alienation came from. When he later wrote more about alienation he said not that he was adding to Hegel’s work, but rather that he was taking it, and “turning it on its head”.

When we come to innovation, many ideas seem to be echoed in nature. And so it is easy to infer that prior to the invention of the wheel someone might have seen a log rolling down a hill. Perhaps this log injured or killed several people, and started a lot of gossip. It’s quite possible that events such as this could have been talked about for generations before one creative individual, or perhaps team of individuals, decided to ‘take’ (not make) this idea, and use it for something else. How else can one realistically suppose that the wheel’s invention came about? Inventors/creators don’t just sit around and invent/create out of nothing. They learn from others all the time, amalgamate different ideas heard in different places, and build upon what other people have said.

invention of the wheelAlthough we don’t know exactly who created the wheel or when, we have in fact made numerous educated guesses. For instance the earliest wheels found come from Sumer, (around 3500BC – this empire was formed along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the Middle East) the empire which is also credited with the invention of writing. And the process of their invention is believed to have been a six stage progression, from placing rollers beneath heavy objects, to placing sledge like runners beneath them, through various combinations of the two led eventually to what we now call the wheel.

If the Sumerian invention of the wheel is correct, then this invention was indeed a huge one, over a huge period of time. But my contention is that all creativity is collective and social. After all, if you put someone in a room at birth, and kept them alive, but with no form of social interaction; do you really think that that person would ever invent anything new?

To what extent do you agree? Is innovation always collective? Or is it sometimes, or even more than sometimes, individual?

Should we boycott zoos?

Have you visited a zoo recently? Did you spare a thought about all those animals kept in enclosures smaller, or simply different, than their natural habitats? There are clear signs of boredom that you can see in squirrels, horses, elephants, and many other animals too. And on top of that there are hundreds of zoos in many countries, each with the primary aim of maximizing the number of entrance fees paid. On top of the ‘efficiently’ sized enclosures this also means pulling in many animals that experts deem completely unsuitable for captivity e.g. Polar bears.

Now most zoos shift focus from the Victorian emphasis on entertainment to the modern emphases on species conservation and entertainment. But not everyone agrees that this excuses their loss of liberty. Take wolves for example. There are several breeds that we have deliberately driven to extinction, and keep alive in zoos with no intention of re-introducing them to the wild. What difference exists between this, and an inter-species war with the winning side keeping the opposing survivors alive in cages for their amusement?

What are your views on the ethics of zoos? Do they teach empathy and conservation as claimed by zoos? Or do they abuse the rights of animals, and enforce an unfounded presumption about humanity’s superiority?

Now I’m not opposed to zoos. But just as food for thought we visited a zoo recently in Kent. We passed an enclosure housing the red squirrel, an animal native to the UK. It was pacing back and forth in front of the bars, seemingly in distress. My wife said “I feel sorry for it. He’s obviously bored.” but a child from the group behind us said “look mummy it’s dancing for us.” Both reactions seem natural. But one shows empathy. The other presumes that animals are there solely to entertain. What are zoos for in your opinion? Are they ethical? Can we justify going? Or should we boycott them?

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