With Britain seized by the shock of two inane celebrities behaving like inane celebrities, to the faux, and often self-interested, horror of the press,* it is time to concentrate on more weighty matters.
Vietnam's Health Ministry suspended a widely ridiculed plan to ban short, thin and small-chested drivers.
The ministry had recommended that people whose chests measure less than 28 inches be prohibited from driving motorbikes — as well as those who are too short (less than 4 -foot-8) or too thin (less than 88 pounds).
That's more like it.
*Mind you, if there was an uproar about the abuse of public service broadcasting and the waste of public money by employing Melanie Phillips on The Moral Maze I might join in.
The Independent once saw it as a place for artists. I associate it more with large, cheap meals in a taverna run by Stalin's double. Whatever, Lafkos is a seriously nice village. It has a lovely square and stunning views across the Pagasitic Gulf. It can be reached from my house by a moderately strenuous walk, for a plump chap, up a scenic donkey track.* Amazingly for such a small place, it also has museums.
The most celebrated is the gallery devoted to the work of the artist Thanasis Fampas, a native of the village. Now an email has alerted me to the latest addition to Lafkos' cultural endowment. A new museum of antique radios was inaugurated on Sunday.
At times like this, I wish I was there.
*There is a bus up that hill too - don't want readers to get carried away with the idea of me as athletic.
Two calls for the reform of higher education have come from the reported comments of two vice-chancellors who are sympathetic to lifelong learning.
First up is Christine King, stressing the importance of part-time learning and decrying its marginalisation. I would have fully agreed if she hadn't relied on some depressing tropes to justify her position. The guff on the knowledge economy, portfolio working, and the link to economic prosperity doesn't stand up to empirical examination. And the picture of "a generation of young and mature students who work in cyberspace" is a fiction that diverts us away from the real purpose of part-time learning, equity.
The people who become part-time students are not insomniac, workaholic geeks who seeks 24 hour library access and extended teaching times. Instead, they are low paid workers, people who have missed out, people on benefits, people with families who cannot afford to stop working to study or run up the associated debts, people improving themselves, in short, people who want something better from life. And all they want is a university that welcomes them.
And so it was good to turn to Peter Scott attacking "Managerialist bullshit", "false market rhetoric" and "low-level government tinkering", whilst arguing for a renewed social democratic commitment to higher education to be resuced from the ashes of the financial crisis. In fact, put the two together and you have a pretty good argument for a University system that is worthy of the hopes and dreams of the people who pay for it. Though for those of us who work in lifelong learning, it seems ever more remote.
The clocks have gone back giving us dark afternoons as Britain persists in setting its time an hour behind the rest of Europe. I always hate it. At least early mornings will be enlivened by the Rugby League World Cup being played in Australia over the next four weeks. The Kangaroos look far too strong though, the real competition is probably for who comes second. Never mind, there is always work ... ah.
I like Thursdays. I do plenty of teaching and the joy of it never leaves me. Today I have been teaching on two of the most misread writers in the history of political thought, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Adam Smith.
A thought struck me about the credit crunch when we were discussing Smith's distinction between a rich and a thriving country and his advocacy of high wages:
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.
Amongst all the guff about irresponsible lending, sub-prime mortgages, all the technicalities of the financial markets and the failure of regulation, I have seen little comment apportioning blame to a fundamental cause of the crisis - that the American working class is too poorly paid to buy a house, something that, in a rich country like the USA, they should expect to be able to do. Low wages rendered them vulnerable and open to exploitation by unscrupulous lenders. Low wages meant that the bubble burst and they lost their homes. Adam Smith was right; America is no longer thriving.
Sheila Rowbotham has published a new biography of Edward Carpenter and has written on him in Open Democracy. I haven't done much work on Carpenter, though her claim that "his own name has been largely and undeservedly forgotten", seems a bit overblown. I see references to him everywhere and hers is neither the first full biography to have been written, nor is it the only one in print. Carpenter was part of a wider radical left movement on the fringes of Anarchism, some neglected (often justly) and some remembered. It interests and its influence spread wider than may seem apparent at first glance.
Note too Rowbotham's mention of Carpenter's occasional expression of anti-Semitic sentiments. Though familiar today from its current anti-Zionist guise, we need to remember that casual left anti-Semitism is not new. It has been lurking in the shadows for a long time. It is good to see it openly recognised. Not just for this reason, the book is one for my reading list.
In trying to find historical parallels for the current financial crisis, Scott Reynolds Nelson thinks that we are looking at the wrong crash. We should be thinking of 1873 not 1929.
...the current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls "the real Great Depression." She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.
I am wary of direct historical analogies, but this intrigues,
If there are lessons from 1873, they are different from those of 1929. Most important, when banks fall on Wall Street, they stop all the traffic on Main Street — for a very long time. The protracted reconstruction of banks in the United States and Europe created widespread unemployment. Unions (previously illegal in much of the world) flourished but were then destroyed by corporate institutions that learned to operate on the edge of the law. In Europe, politicians found their scapegoats in Jews, on the fringes of the economy. (Americans, on the other hand, mostly blamed themselves; many began to embrace what would later be called fundamentalist religion.)
... from the Observer this Sunday. There was a nice little piece on the old Station Road Rugby League ground, the former home of Swinton Lions, as part of their series on defunct sports stadia. Sadly, I can't find a link to it online. You may now have to search your fish and chip wrapping paper in the hope of enlightenment.
However, of more general interest, this article will get Northern folk weeping into their mushy peas and kicking their whippets in anguish.
Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh give me back my heart! Or, since that has left my breast, Keep it now, and take the rest! Hear my vow before I go, Zoi mou sas agapo.
April 19th, the anniversary of Lord Byron's death, will now be a "day of celebration" in Greece. His action and death in the War of Independence makes him a national hero. His angry verse on the removal of the Parthenon Marbles by Lord Elgin is often quoted.
Byron's support for Greek independence from the Ottomans should not be solely interpreted as romanticism tinged with nostalgia for the Ancients. The nationalism of his day represented a popular challenge to the autocracy of traditional ruling classes and to the tyranny of empires. It is as one with his, admittedly aristocratic, radicalism, which was not confined to foreign causes. He spoke, too, for the English working classes, using his position to defend the Luddites.
So on April 19th, I think that we should join the Greeks and raise a glass in his memory. It might even be an idea to read some of the poetry.
As the Liberty lads o'er the sea Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood, So we, boys, we Will die fighting, or live free, And down with all kings but King Ludd!
When the web that we weave is complete, And the shuttle exchanged for the sword, We will fling the winding-sheet O'er the despot at our feet, And dye it deep in the gore he has pour'd.
Though black as his heart its hue, Since his veins are corrupted to mud, Yet this is the dew Which the tree shall renew Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!
Paulie has posted in favour of a citizen's basic income and raised some problems in implementing an idea that he finds instinctively attractive. The one that caught my eye was:
That it would be a hard sell to voters - the idea that Our Taxes Are Being Dished Out To The Feckless.
He has a neat response in the light of current events:
No-one but an utter charlatan or a fundamentalist (and, therefore, anti-democratic) libertarian can now deny that much more generous handouts to much less deserving people are necessary to stabilise society. Surely it would be easier to make the moral case now than ever before?
One-nil to Paulie, but we are not talking about morality here. No, the case for a citizen's income is all about self-interest; how a universal benefit is in the interests of each of us as individuals and collectively as a society. I would go further and argue that this type of universalism is profoundly libertarian.
One of the big problems for anti-statists is the welfare state. It is popular and necessary. Either they have to look at ways in which welfare can be delivered in non-statist ways, or they can deny its utility or legitimacy. There are two broad ways in which this has been done. Some on the left have talked about welfare as a form of social control, a ruling class plot to keep the masses in order and/or to buy off revolution, the right have relied on the concept of dependency culture. For me, both are, at best, exaggerations or, at worst, fictions. Remove welfare from people and you get neither surges in revolutionary consciousness, nor an entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, you get despair, distress, self-harm, crime, a culture of exclusion and a struggle for survival. Benefit cuts are not 'tough love', they are an unecessary form of abuse.
Yet, whilst the welfare state itself has not been challenged in the mainstream, the notion of universalism has been increasingly undermined, not least by New Labour who are wedded to the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor. Their defence of the legitimacy of welfarism has been a narrowly cautious one, seeking to reassure the right wing press that they are not wasting money on 'scroungers'. They have done this in two ways. The first is by placing the emphasis on 'targeting those most in need', automatically creating categories of those who are entitled and those who aren't, thereby inviting debates about where the boundary should be drawn. Secondly, and even more damagingly to the universal principle, they have reiterated the mantra of 'no rights without responsibilities', linking welfare rights to individual behaviour.
Some rights and obligations are contingent on each other (my right to life rests on your duty not to kill me), they are unavoidable. However some are not really obligations but conditions (unless you are good you will not get your pocket money) and what New Labour is really advocating is conditionality. This leads to moral judgements of individual worth as a requirement for state aid. And it is slipping into other areas of provision, such as health, with suggestions of restrictions on health care for smokers or the obese.
Ironically, both of these make the mythologies of the left and right appear more credible. Targeting puts people into a servile position as supplicants to the state, trying to prove their worth. Conditionality is pure authoritarian social control; do this or else. From here flows a range of malign dialogues, about the work-shy, foreigners, single parents, and all the other creatures that can be lifted from the demonology of the Daily Mail. Universalism does raise questions over definitions of citizenship, but otherwise lifts us out of these discourses. It offers no judgements, no grovelling, no debate.
And this is really libertarian. It gives complete freedom of choice. You can work hard or sit up all night writing blog posts. You can study for as long as you like at your local college. You can spend it on beer and fags. No one will care. Individual Liberty is the result of the economic security that collective action offers. What is more, it makes you less vulnerable to exploitation.
Some would have it that insecurity is a stimulus to creativity, to culture, and to genius. They see greatness as the product of suffering and struggle.
That sort of Nietzscheian tosh is not for me, just think how much more could have been achieved if the geniuses of the past did not have to waste their lives grovelling to the powerful for a living, but were free to work as they wished. Human progress is best derived from security rather than misery. And, even so, what about ordinary people like us, living humdrum and all too finite lives ? Where would we be without a welfare state? Like this?
There are times that England seduces. Today was a glorious autumn day, warm and bright. Remembrances of a sodden summer slip away and its charm catches your breath. I took advantage of the weather and strolled by the Huddersfield Canal in the Pennines on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border. The leaves are slowly turning and starting to fall. The bare moorland already has its brown-tinged winter hue.
A friend from Greece has emailed to say that they are lunching outside under the shade of their olive tree. It is a timely reminder that England is just a flirt who attracts your attention with a dazzling display and then plunges you into a depressive grey for what seems like an eternity, making you long for a divorce, or at least a trial separation. I enjoyed my harmless flirtation today, I won't take it too seriously though; it's not the real thing.
... in Hull. It was always a corny advertising slogan and not quite true all the time. And the attempt to rebrand the city as "the Barcelona of the North" was spectacularly doomed to failure. However, now the football club's success is doing what the marketing whizzes could not, it has got the national press writing that Hull actually isn't the dump of their imagination. As small cities go, it is a good place to live and work. It deserves better than the condescension that has been served up in the past. One day the media might realise that there is life outside London, but not as they know it; it is better.
George Szirtes has posted thoughtfully in response to a comment of mine on his blog. The exchange was prompted by George postingsomeextracts from a novella by Márai that he is translating and this is a long overdue reply. The extracts are gorgeous, written in ravishing prose, and they are also engaging and interesting observations on the human condition. I would recommend reading the posts in question to make sense of this debate, but, briefly, the theme we were discussing was whether a small 'c' conservatism could be radical, as in one George describes Márai as a conservative writer. I had quoted from a book that still interests, though it is long out of print, Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook's, The Revolt Against Change.
I think Blackwell and Seabrook's point is well made. People who have been bullied all their lives (come here - go there - get on your bike) will feel a certain resistance to still more change, especially when imposed - even by the cleverest, most sympathetic people - from the outside. That resistance can be radical.
On one side of this radicalism we find the far outreaches of nationalism, xenophobia, and stupid, instinctive, short-term, vindictive, lumpen bigotry.
There is another side to the question of resistance, of course. Miners led very hard lives but, in some respects, they did not want those lives changed. It was the circumstances and rewards they wanted improved, not the sense of community and pride in the face of hardship. The hardship was a cohesive force.
George is very acute in seeing that resistance to change can lead to racism and bigotry. It is also one of the forces behind a nostalgia that can feed backward looking utopias, seeking to impose an imagined past, at times with an illiberal brutality and, at others, through a Fox News banality. This is wholly malign, as is the conservative sophistry that seeks to preserve privilege at the expense of others. Yet there is a radical sense and it is something more than the preservation of community, identity and a way of life. Miners certainly wanted improved circumstances and rewards, they also celebrated hardship and cohesion, but they wanted better for their children. It was only bitter times that led them to fight for the right to preserve that hardship as the source of their families' financial security.
There is an old cliché that is trotted out whenever someone in authority is doing something nasty to you and you are moved to protest - "people just don't like change". Absolute nonsense. People don't like change that is not in their interest, they don't like it when it hurts their friends and their families, they don't like it when it threatens their livelihoods. Suspicion of change is widespread mainly because of experience. It is so often the harbinger of hardship. Miners embraced the dream of change for future generations, though they dared not hope for it for themselves. However, George is right, they did not want it at the expense of their communities, but as a way of enhancing them.
Blackwell and Seabrook were writing about a resistance to the brutal, exploitative and transformative power of capitalism, against the forces that tore people apart, and about the softer sorrows of the way in which the social mobility of sons and daughters moved them somewhere distant and remote, pride in their achievement only partially compensating for the pain of absence.
Thus, a radical project is not to simply resist change, it is to be able to judge it, to have the power to choose the change that benefits and enlightens, and to preserve that which nurtures and delights. It is about ordinary people being the agents of change rather than the objects of it. At times, it may signify the ability to make a complete breach with the past. Though mostly it is about adapting and developing the present to make a better future, which is simply the past transformed.
There is more though. George is a poet. He brings the debate back to language. "Writers rely on the precarious stability of language". As with life, with language we are always on the edge of change.
So there is a heroic enterprise after all, and it is not without its radical edge, if only in recognising that the edge is where we live. Language shifts as we shift. It is always shifting. Language is the ghosts down the mines. Writing is a way of seeking the proper way to address them. That is a radical programme.
Indeed it is. Language without change is dead, ponderous, pastiche, kitsch. Yet what sort of change? Is it the modernism that seeks to liberate language from the chains of structure, form and conventional meaning? Is its sole purpose novelty? Or does it take from the past that haunts us, use the forms that we recognise, wrap us snugly in the security of meaning, entrance us with its beauty, before taking our hand to gently lead us into something new, a future, a vision, something better, something modern? That is radical, that is progressive. Above all, it is human.
Professor Norbert Norbert, has designed a "university management computer" which is operationally indistinguishable from a human university manager. But can you tell the difference?
He then gives a sample dialogue, which includes the following.
Norbert: I was wondering what you saw as the key objectives for this university.
Respondent: Going forward?
Norbert: Yes, going forward.
Respondent: If we are to impact and incentivise the new student experience going forward then we must prioritise and concretise our strategic objectives. We must get out of our silos, go the extra mile, think outside the box, cascade our ideas, realise that this is a wake-up call, make sure that we have ticked all the boxes and not reinvented the wheel, and then go on to hit the ground running, put clear blue water between ourselves and our competitors, look for win-win situations, make sure we are all singing from the same song sheet, keep everyone in the loop and unpack all our propositions. After all, this isn't rocket science.
Yesterday afternoon some colleagues and I were attempting to go to Sheffield University for an inaugural lecture by Professor Sue Webb, someone I have known for around 25 years and who I like and respect enormously. A terrible crash on the M62 closed the motorway and gridlocked the side roads. East Yorkshire was cut off. We all retired to a village pub for a beer, a bitching session and a laugh. One friend turned to me and said, "I am surprised you haven't written anything about the banking crisis on your blog". The answer is simple. I haven't got a clue what it is all about. So, if you want to know more you will have to turn to someone like the latest Internet phenomenon, Robert Peston rather than lurk around here.
Just in case, if capitalism collapses and the working class seize the means of production, or if armed bands of workers expropriate the rich, or if we all start spontaneously organising ourselves into autonomous communes, would someone please email me and let me know. Thanks.
The credit crunch meets the diet industry - the result:
Even more bizarrely, the latest ‘must-have’ for shoplifters is Slim Fast shakes. Yes, really. The £7 six packs of the meal replacement drinks have been security-tagged after disappearing en masse from supermarket shelves.
He's back. Why? Andrew Rawnsley thinks it is to rescue the New Labour 'project' for posterity. For me, the whole point of Labour's change of leadership had to be a change of direction, not continuity. And as continuity goes this is certainly bizarre. Never mind the two forced resignations and the Millenium Dome, it is his politics that concern me. Very right wing, he was a celebrant of the zeitgeist that has just crumbled in the credit crunch. My faith in Brown's judgement has hardly been restored and my fears for the Labour Party have deepened. Depressing, deeply depressing.
I was at Old Trafford for last night's Rugby League Grand Final, marking the end of the domestic season. The match was a cracker despite being played in a torrential downpour. It wasn't quite a sell-out, but nearly 69,000 people made the sort of deafening noise Manchester United would die for.
These are great occasions, fans mixing without problems, beer flowing freely and huge passions on display. They are not just events for the supporters of the competing clubs, but for all League fans to celebrate 'the greatest game'.
Over on his blog, Freeborn John, Peter Risdon has replied to my earlier post on totalitarianism defending Harry Barnes over his 'if I ruled the world' fantasy answer on his Normblog profile. I thought I would repay the compliment with a post rather than a comment because I differ with much of what he writes. Most of our disagreements are a result of our different political outlooks and cannot be reconciled. However, I can't leave the issue of totalitarianism aside. This isn't just a semantic debate, but about the identification of something that is an unambiguous evil.
Let's make no mistake, that is what the word 'totalitarianism' should describe and that is why a loose use of the term is dangerous. I am not going to do a full dissection of his post, instead I just want to make three main points.
The place to start is where Peter is right. He writes:
My argument with Harry Barnes centred, for me, on whether or not he recognises any proper limit to the role of government, and it still appears he does not. It also appears that Peter has missed this point.
Spot on. I missed it. That is because I cannot see anything in Harry's blogging that suggests that he sees no proper limits on the state. He is a democrat after all and democracy itself, unlike the old absolutisms, limits the power of government. The difference is that Harry is a democratic socialist and Peter is a classic liberal. As such, of course, Harry has a more positive view of the state, he believes in the possibility of collective action to promote liberty. That doesn't mean that he sees no limits to state action, he simply draws the boundaries in a different place.
Secondly, Peter quotes a well-known passage from Hayek in his support.
Hayek made what seems to me from a contemporary perspective to be an observation both chilling and obvious:
... students of the currents of ideas can hardly fail to see that there is more than a superficial similarity between the trend of thought in Germany during and after the last war and the present current of ideas in this country. There exists now in this country certainly the same determination that the organisation of the nation we have achieved for the purposes of defence shall be retained for the purpose of creation. There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious "realism" and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of "inevitable trends".
Actually, I don't find this passage chilling, I find it silly. After all, there are a few discontinuities as well. Some of the trends of thought missing are little things like genocide, fascism, militarisation of the whole of society, extermination camps, racial 'theory', the abolition of democracy, book burning, officially approved kitsch art, systematic arbitrary arrest, torture and murder, the leadership principle, global conquest and so on, you get my drift. I think that their absence is a wee bit significant. Interestingly, Hayek wasn't alone in identifying a threat from the Post-War state. When George Orwell wrote 1984 he was explicit in saying that he was projecting forward trends that he saw in contemporary society. The book's inherent pessimism is one of the reasons why it is not my favourite. Yet Orwell was also a supporter of the Labour government and, as he put it in his essay, Why I Write,
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
Just like Harry.
Post-war reconstruction was necessary in the aftermath of total war - a war fought against totalitarianism. Reconstruction was also a weapon against its resurgence. Of course the dilemmas of the collective and the individual, of state control and individual liberty, were ever present and constantly changing, but reconstruction of Western Europe into a social democratic, welfare capitalist order was at its very essence an anti-totalitarian project.
Finally, Peter picks up on my use of Friedrich and Brzezinski. describing them as "Carter's Hawk and an obvious crank". OK, he has a point, but he shouldn't get carried away with the ad hominems. There are more than a few examples of less than rational behaviour amongst the libertarian ranks. However, what he does avoid dealing with is that the main witness for the defence was another classic liberal, a follower of Hayek and a libertarian, the formidable Alex Shtromas. His view was that the defining feature of totalitarianism was an official ideology, purporting to an absolute truth, to which there had to be a total and unwavering adherence, something that was a feature of periods of revolution. I agree, and unless this is present, even in embryo form, we cannot possibly call a single policy, isolated from its context, totalitarian.
I think the clinching argument for me is something much more instinctive. If we were ever faced by an existential threat from a totalitarian state waging total war against our imperfect democracy, I think that Peter, Harry and myself might find ourselves puffing and panting away in the Home Guard, 'doing our bit', however futile. We would be comrades because we would understand the threat posed to our fragile liberties and the horror that would be unleashed by defeat. I don't think then we would be calling each other totalitarians. We would be facing the real thing.
The world is wall-to-wall meetings. But what is the point of them? Does anyone take any notice of what anyone else says, or change their mind about what they thought in the first place because of someone else's persuasive argument at a meeting? Hardly ever.
Michelle Hanson shares her sense of exasperation with the proliferation of grim and pointless meetings and offers the sane a few examples of useful techniques to get through them.
Rosemary has suffered at higher-education meetings, but at least she had a way of coping. As the meetings dragged on, she would imagine the most annoying persons in their coffins ready for burial, then plan their funerals: the dreary hymns, dull texts, secret mistresses lurking behind trees at cemeteries, wives and children weeping at gravesides. Another pointless argument, more self-congratulatory claptrap, another burial.
I like that. It is an extension of my usual fantasy, which isn't about the funerals of the people who are doing my head in, but of the methods used to get them there - think AK47s, blunt instruments and the like.
Then there is this one,
Rosemary told a few people her meeting survival method and found that it was already quite popular among academics, except that most of them plan orgies instead of burials. Olivia likes to pair up two colleagues, place them in bed, then imagine the proceedings. Meetings just fly by. While she's imagining all this, she nods now and again and says, "Yes", as if she's following the debate.
Hmm ... This has possibilities, except ... sometimes the thought could be a bit grim; you wouldn't want to have had a big breakfast.
She hit the nail on the head though about the way to cover up survival daydreaming. Learn a few stock phrases and throw them in occasionally and, who knows, you might even impress someone.