Monday, April 20, 2020

Method in madness

As the Labour Party sets out in a struggle to regain the closest approximation to sanity that exists in politics, the Conservative Party doesn't seem to want to join in. Partly, this is to do with the strength of an influential strand of right-wing contrarian thought that runs through it. It's easy to reel off some of the names. Toby Young, James Delingpole, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, those from Furedi's Spiked cult, all supported by a range of think tanks. The same is happening across the Atlantic with people such as Jordan Peterson and, as shown in this interview, Richard Epstein.

These people are the respectable stratum under which lies wilder depths of increasingly deranged conspiracy thought on both the right and the left. In this country, you will find it in climate change denial/minimisation, Brexit, and, in its latest manifestation, opposition to the lockdown in response to the pandemic. The Epstein interview interested me, not just because of his influence on some around our government, but because it shows graphically the way that these people operate. It's a method that works something like this.

1. False expertise.

Epstein is not an epidemiologist or a virologist, he is a lawyer. Expertise in one field does not confer expertise in others. I have no doubt that he is a very good lawyer, but then he throws in this, "I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law." This is supposed to turn him into an expert on the evolution of the coronavirus. Real experts react in horror.

I have no doubt that these people read and study a mountain of material, even becoming obsessive about it. The big problem is that their study is unsystematic and self-selected, so their conclusions are dodgy. I heard a classic example on Radio 4's The Moral Maze quite a few years ago. Melanie Phillips was arguing against climate science. Phillips, who had previously spread the MMR/autism manufactured panic, said, and I paraphrase, "If 97% of climate scientists agree, why does most of what I read say the opposite." She hadn't realised that she had just shown the narrowness and inadequacy of her reading, rather give a clinching argument in favour of her denialism. It goes on and on. Brexiters have a huge command of detail about the EU, most of which is verifiably wrong. Jordan Peterson based his justification of hierarchy and inequality on the biology of lobsters, which was fine until a real expert in lobsters came along with this hilarious putdown.

This type of reading and reasoning is a classic example of selecting according to a pre-existing ideological preference and then bending the evidence to support it. We can see something similar with Dominic Cummings' flaunting of his self-education in science and his deprecation of the humanities (although he actually has an history degree). Each shares their particular misinformation within their circles in a continuous cycle of reinforcement and self-verification. It's a way to claim the status of erudition without submitting to the scholarship necessary to achieve it.

The importance of systematic and programmed learning is that it gives you comparators. Making a judgement is impossible without them. This is what education is. And because of the complexity of knowledge, we only have a limited scope. We have to rely on the judgement of experts. They are easily found. They are the ones sitting in the corner with their heads in their hands.

This isn't a unique fault, we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. I'm very prone to big speeches on the basis of half knowledge. But these people do it it with such certainty, with amazing self-confidence, with vanity even. They are free of doubt. It's what makes them convincing.

2. The disparagement of experts.

The enemy of false expertise is genuine expertise. The result is that much of the energy of these contrarians is spent in disparaging people who have it. This is rarely done with evidence. After all, there usually isn't any. So they use two main techniques.

The first is contempt. Experts are the elite or the establishment. They are trying to protect themselves or further their careers. They are too scared to stand up to the powerful (unlike our courageous contrarians). They suffer from 'groupthink.' They are conventional and unimaginative. They have vested interests. Forget evidence, ad hominems are sufficient in the contrarian mind. That leaves the easy emotional appeal of a supposedly special and superior knowledge, one used by every conspiracy thinker and snake oil seller to ignore the substance of the issue that exposes them as fake.

The second is doubt. This is a well-trodden path. Rather than put forward an alternative theory, they raise doubts about the certainty of well established facts. By creating a sense of controversy or debate where there is none, they undermine a genuine scientific consensus. The tobacco companies did this with smoking and health for decades, the fossil fuel industry has used the same methods to spread doubt about climate change and, more recently, to spread opposition to renewable energy. Contrarians celebrate outliers, and promote them as if they were mainstream. They feed off a media obsession for balance where someone who knows what they are talking about has to be countered by someone who doesn't.

3. False Martyrdom

Oh how they suffer, these contrarians. How they are persecuted. How they are denigrated for, horror of horrors, being wrong. How, despite newspaper columns, book contracts, and endless appearances on TV and radio, their right of free speech is being denied and they are being silenced. It's hardly surprising that they need to fight back and, like Toby Young, form a Free Speech Union. After all, the right to be discourteous, abusive, and to speak lies to truth has to be defended.

The problem that I have with all this is that they are not demanding free speech. They want the right to speak without opposition. Free speech is not agreement. Toleration does not mean approval, but acceptance, grudging and reluctant at times. J S Mill's seminal defence of free speech in On Liberty, sees contest and challenge as a fundamental element of it. He has a dialectical theory of truth. There isn't just a right, but a duty to contest. Liberalism does not mean sitting back and letting people spout nonsense, it means calling it out and saying that bollocks is precisely that, however uncomfortable it makes these 'free speech warriors' feel. They do not want to defend a robust principle, but to promote themselves and their ideologies, while receiving back nothing but admiration for their originality and daring.

All of this would be a nice intellectual game if it were not for one thing, the contrarians proximity to power. They have pushed a particular agenda within the governing party and its media cheerleaders. They are not seekers after truth, but seekers after influence. This is an ideological power grab. It has consequences. Action against climate change has been delayed. The damaging stupidity of Brexit has been imposed on the country. And, if the majority of virologists and epidemiologists are right, their campaign to end lockdown early could kill thousands. They are dangerous and Brexit has taken them to the heart of government, because the Conservative Party has abandoned conservatism in favour of ideological insanity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

They never go quietly

I've often compared the Corbyn leadership with those moments in education when we had a problematic management. It felt the same. And the experience was always independent of the various political/educational views that management identified with. It strikes me that there are some generic lessons that can just as easily apply to the situation in Labour with the leaked submission to the EHRC. It's not that there aren't specific political issues, it's just that they are manifesting themselves in a far too familiar way.

1. When the management comission a report detailing how most of the staff think that the management are sodding useless and would do anything to get rid of them, this is not the masterstroke they think it is. It doesn't show that the management are good. Spying on the staff to get details about how rude they are about management in private doesn't help their case either.

2. Management accepting some failings and then saying that they only screwed up because the staff were being nasty to them, does not exonerate them.

3. If they leak a document containing actionable defamations and evidence of civil and criminal breaches of data protection legislation, naming complainants and putting staff at risk, they shouldn't think that it puts them in a good light.

4. There are always factions in any workplace (even more so in political parties). If factionalism becomes destructive, that means that it has been poorly managed. Factionalism doesn't mean that grievances against management are not real.

5. If the management says they would have had a magnificent success if it hadn't been for the disloyalty of the staff, laugh. It's always easier to plead betrayal than to be self-critical and take responsibility for your own actions.

And here are two tips:

1. When you want to bitch about management, don't do it on your work email or server. That is dumb.

2. When a new management comes in, riding on a wave of support and goodwill, they mustn't think that they can clean up the mess by being emollient with their predecessors and fudging the issues. If they don't act swiftly and decisively to resolve the conflicts and deal with the substance of the discontent, the problems will continue worse than ever and the new management will fail as badly as the old. The old regime are never the friends of the new.

I've seen lots of similar situations in my thirty years in education, including during a horrible time as union branch secretary. None of it is fun. The discontents were always real and needed dealing with. Usually, the cost was borne by the staff in the end. We should understand that the problem was not the staff. Instead the cause was inept and incapable leadership, using its power to protect itself, just as it would in any other organisation.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Goodbye to all that

The polls are closed. He's gone by Saturday. We just have to wait for Starmer's certain coronation.

So what's Corbyn's record? 

He won: 
Two leadership elections
The local government elections of 2016 and 2018

He lost: 
The local government elections of 2017 and 2019
The EU referendum
A Parliamentary Party vote of no confidence
The European elections
Two general elections.

A comprehensive failure.

There was a moment of hope. In 2017 Labour lost nothing like as badly as expected. A late surge deprived the Tories of a majority. Labour hadn't won, but the party held a potential Parliamentary veto if May's agreement with the DUP failed. When it did and when Johnson took the leadership, the Tory majority vanished. Labour could control Parliament.

2017 was Labour's great chance. It needed to build on its gains, heal the party and build a coalition. So what did it do? Continued with the factionalism, sank into a swamp of anti-semitism and drove away Jewish MPs, ran a central administration based on nepotism and bullying with key posts filled by upper-class Stalinists, covered up sexual harassment, ignored its members over Brexit, but then released fanatical and deranged loyalists to abuse its critics.

The collapse of May's government, together with Johnson's ruthlessness towards his opponents in his own party, left the Tories as a minority government. There was now a Parliamentary coalition capable of commanding a majority. It would be able to remove Johnson and call a second EU referendum. Corbyn was the obstacle to activating it. Then, in the most astonishing act of stupidity, ignoring all advice and all polling evidence, he decided to give Johnson the one thing he wanted most, an election - an election held on the terms and at the time the Tories wanted.  Corbyn chose to agree to one despite his personal approval polling standing at minus 60% - an unprecedented level of unpopularity. He took the wrong lesson from 2017 and was convinced that he would sweep to power on another late surge. An incoherent manifesto and an incompetent campaign later, we see his legacy. A Tory landslide, Labour with the fewest seats since 1935, and Britain out of the European Union. It's fair to say that without Corbyn's leadership, none of these would have happened.

Corbyn's decision to facilitate an election was not just stupid, it was criminal.

Losing was a collective failure too. Labour has never been ruthless enough to remove an unpopular leader. Corbyn could never have won, that was always certain. He had no appeal outside the party and was broadly disliked. Someone else could have given the poll a good go. And a wise leader would have waited until after Brexit had been resolved. To a disengaged public, he didn't look like a credible Prime Minister. This was obvious in 2015. His election was a bizarre choice that rested far more on the sentimentality of Labour members than on the judgement of those who had to face the electorate.

He hasn't just been a disaster for the country, but for the left as well. Leftists saw this as their chance and lined up to defend the wrong leader. It was obvious to anybody who was mentally honest that, regardless of his politics, Corbyn didn't have the ability to do the job. The issue of his competence never went away. His inevitable failure was an existential threat to the left. As were his absurd cultish followers. They came over as aggressive, abusive, and unpleasant. A populist strategy that divided the world into villains, victims, and the virtuous could never appeal to people who didn't see themselves as victims and viewed these people as anything other than virtuous.

The whole farrago reminded me of Jonathan Rose writing about why the Communist Party got so little support amongst the British working classes.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary ... British working people judged Marxism by the Marxists they knew and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
The very moment the left won within the party, they blew it. They rallied round the wrong people, purely because of their identity.

But the left had other problems. It hadn't prepared. It hadn't renewed itself. There was little new thinking. The sectarian left had been comfortable as a minority opposition to the mainstream, while it persisted in its orthodoxies. Marginalisation suited it. It reassured leftists of their virtue without them having to carry the burdens of responsibility. Intellectually locked in to their defeats in the 1980s, they only saw this as an opportunity to refight them. To his credit, McDonnell did try and move economic policy towards different models of ownership, but there was no coherent narrative of the type that wins elections, not that they had the public's trust anyway.

The left needs an intellectual project. Unimaginative nostalgia and token giveaways to the middle classes would never cut it. It needs to junk the campist nonsense that saw it fawning over foreign tyrannies and the theocratic far right, while welcoming in the anti-semites. It needs a new political economy for changing times. And activists have to remember that this is not a performance for their own benefit, it is not a form of personal gratification. Self-indulgence loses elections.

Corbyn's leadership was a painful lesson in political realities. In 2015 I thought the party would be facing a big defeat this year if it hadn't ditched him by now. We should have been facing an election as the Cameron government's five-year-term came to an end this May. Instead, Cameron caused an unnecessary constitutional mess over Brexit and the crushing defeat came early.

Today, there is a national crisis. We are locked down by a pandemic. We are out of the European Union. And looming is the colossal self-imposed damage of leaving the single market and customs union. In such a crisis, Labour should speak for the nation, not lecture it for its stupidity in not voting for a leader that it did not want and was prepared to tell anyone who listened that they did not want. That's the tragedy. Defeat was utterly predictable. It was also preventable if the party had listened and taken action. Listening is something that the new leader needs to do right away. The alternative is oblivion.