Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the publication Spiked, and who is an ardent Leaver when it comes to the European Union, has been writing about how the exit vote last week can be largely explained in terms of class and attitudes of elites. (O’Neill is, or is recovering from being, a Marxist, so his economics still seems a bit suspect to me, even though I like the cut of his jib generally, especially on other issues around liberty and government).
I think the class analysis has some validity; it is worth noting that there is more to class-based interpretations of what is going on than the Marxian version. There are, in the classical liberal/conservative traditions of political philosophy and approach, uses of class as a way of seeing how the world works. One person’s essay that I am reminded of is the famous one by William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man. Or perhaps a riff on the same tune is Nixon’s “great silent majority”. These approaches aren’t really about proletarians versus “bosses”. They are, in my view, more about those who are broadly self-reliant, deriving the bulk of their earnings from their own efforts and who aspire to have, and retain, capital, and those who do not. The latter can be those who subsist on state benefits, or grander folk working in the public sector paid for largely by the first group. (There are fuzzy boundaries between all types.) And I think that sort of split maps better in explaining whether you are going to be liberal or protectionist, for a big State or a smaller one. But it doesn’t necessarily help on explaining all the voting on the Brexit debate. I wrote this in response to one of O’Neill’s posts on Facebook, and I reproduce it here with some light edits:
I am not sure how far the class-based analysis can be made to work in terms of having a causal effect (remember that old warning about correlation and causation). Whether used in a Marxian or other sense, class can explain some of the differences, but some of the arguments cut across. I am middle class, working in the media covering private banking and wealth management around the world. My job takes me to the continent a lot, as well as Asia, the US, and Middle East. Some of the people I work with are from continental Europe. I am relaxed – mostly – about free movement of labour. I went to a good state school, went into higher ed. in the 1980s, my late mother was posh, my old man was a grammar schoolboy who later became a farmer and is comfortably off. I like classical music, fine art, French wine and sailing. So from a lot of points of view I am “middle class”. And I voted Leave. To some extent I “voted my wallet”, not, as might be the case with someone from the old industrial north, because I was worried about “cheap labour”, or had some notion that this will “save the NHS” or suchlike, but because I want the UK to have the freedom to negotiate new economic links outside the EU to hedge this country’s economy against the weakness, and possible crisis, in the eurozone. I am on the free market, libertarian end of the political and philosophical spectrum. I therefore loathe the unaccountable, nanny tendencies of the EU, and think my values will flourish if we leave.
“Liberalism was always counterintuitive. The less society is ordered, the more order emerges from the ground up. The freer people are permitted to be, the happier the people become and the more meaning they find in the course of life itself. The less power that is given to the ruling class, the more wealth is created and dispersed among everyone. The less a nation is directed by conscious design, the more it can provide a model of genuine greatness. Such teachings emerged from the liberal revolution of the previous two centuries. But some people (mostly academics and would-be rulers) weren’t having it. On the one hand, the socialists would not tolerate what they perceived to be the seeming inequality of the emergent commercial society. On the other hand, the advocates of old-fashioned ruling-class control, such as Carlyle and his proto-fascist contemporaries, longed for a restoration of pre-modern despotism, and devoted their writings to extolling a time before the ideal of universal freedom appeared in the world.”
– Jeffrey Tucker.
I suspect that we all hear a lot about discrimination by employers against people on the basis of sex, race, disability, religion and age, but there is also under the Equality Act 2010 (all 90,000+ words of it) in Great Britain protection against discrimination on the basis of philosophical belief, or the lack of it. Or rather, you have a means of legal retaliation against your employer.
The main case in this area came from an employee who had a profound belief in ‘man-made climate change’, but a recent legal case involving a Mr Harron has shed a bit more light on the issue. Mr Harron apparently had a problem with his employer, for which he sought legal redress, he had:
a belief (which the Employment Tribunal thought genuine) that public service was improperly wasteful of money
He worked for Dorset Police.
One might think that this sounds like a vegan putting himself on the boning line in a slaughterhouse. However, all we know is that Mr Harron though waste of money improper, not public service. It is not clear from the case how it was (or was alleged) that this belief led to Mr Harron suffering at the hands of his employer. Poor Mr Harron has also had a Tribunal waste public money holding a hearing listening to his case and getting the law wrong, and now he will have to go back and re-argue his case all over again.
At least we do know that in order for a ‘belief’ to qualify for legal ‘protection’, there are 5 criteria to be met.
(i) The belief must be genuinely held.
(ii) It must be a belief and not,… …an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
(iii) It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
(iv) It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.”
Note that if your ‘belief’ is evidence-based (or even reason-based, like economics), as per (ii) above, your beliefs are not protected, but if you have a belief in an Flying Spaghetti Monster, your beliefs might be ‘protected’. But sacking a libertarian because he did not believe in climate change would be unlawful as it would relate to the ‘absence’ of a belief, rather than the holding of it.
Of course, no libertarian would be seen dead suing his employer over discrimination, so may we say that those of us of a libertarian bent would not sue if fired or harassed at work for being a libertarian (of whatever shade or degree)? In fact, claims of this sort seem to be quite rare.
For information, membership of a political party per se does not qualify one as holding a ‘philosophical belief’, which is an inadvertent judicial recognition of what is fast becoming the ‘bleeding obvious’ with some parties. And ‘Jedi Knights’ will find that the Force (of the law) is not with them.
Professor Edward Frenkel, a mathematics professor at Berkeley, discusses in a roundabout way, in this video, the question of free will via mathematics and whether or not humans, or perhaps human behaviour, can be reduced to algorithms. This was on the excellent Numberphile channel on YT. It takes some time for the Professor to come to his point, which starts around 10′ 10″, but essentially, his point appears to be that, even in the abstract world of mathematics, you have entities (e.g. vectors) which are not the same thing as the numbers used to represent them, so how can you believe that a human being is (capable of being reduced to) a sequence of numbers? How can you believe that life is an algorithm, if you already see that not being applicable in mathematics?
For those of you who follow the maths (or even ‘the math’ for those in Illinois etc.), the Professor has more to say in this video.
So people are more than numbers, no matter what those who might tell us otherwise might pretend.
All of which means, if the Professor is right, that in a future Red Dwarf ship, there would be no hologram of Rimmer, but this does not rule out Ace Rimmer.
It is sometimes all too easy to fall into the ad hominem fallacy when you see a juicy target. The problem, however, is that if you are trying to change minds, appealing to prejudice and resentments either doesn’t work, or provokes revulsion. For example, in the Daily Mail there is an article by someone called Chris Deerin, entitled: “Pass the quinoa, comrade! Hypocrisy of the middle-class revolutionaries”.
Here is a taster:
Radical politics is a pursuit for the moneyed conscience, an indulgence for those who can afford to fight the good fight, who are feather-bedded enough to give their lives over to peripheral causes, doomed campaigns and utopian schemes. When you’re skint, funding the next meal or paying the leccy bill or covering the rent tends to be more of a priority than shouting slogans at students through a megaphone in Freedom Square.
Well it may well be the case that much radical politics today is the occupation of the middle class. But the error that Deerin is making here is that while some middle class supporters of socialism, environmentalism and the rest of it may well be hypocritical wankers who should be boiled in oil (or whatever else Daily Mail readers presumably favour as a punishment) that doesn’t mean that socialism, environmentalism, etc, are therefore wrong. To show that, you have to make the case: you need to debunk the disasters socialism creates (including massive environmental problems, as shown in Soviet Russia), and take on the assumptions of environmentalism (such as how a lot of Greens ignore economic substitution and embrace Malthusian myths, as well as endorse forms of naturalistic fallacies and a false view of nature, etc). Saying that “Greens are posh arseholes” backfires if it turns out that some of what Greens might say is true. And does this also mean that a working class person is also a hypocrite if he or she later espouses capitalism and is a class traitor? The trouble with the ad hominem tactic is that works in both directions.
In the current political scene, I have, for example, seen a lot of this resentment-as-argument tactic being used, such as among some of the pro-Trump folk in the US (taking shots at “the Establishment, ignoring that Trump is part of it, in a way), and among the pro-Sanders people attacking Wall Street (in a blanket attack on anyone in finance). We get it in the UK (resentment at the Cameroonians for being posh, rather than for their actual views.)
For centuries, people have pondered the meaning of evil. But the solution to the riddle is that evil has no meaning. Evil is the absence of meaning; it is meaninglessness. To build, to create, to act in the world—these all have meaning. Evil cannot. It is only a black hole that can tear apart meaningful things, and return them to the hollow silence of the universe. This is what we mean when we say that evil is “banal.” It lacks the infinite grandeur of even a grain of sand, let alone of laughter, or of a kiss. In that sense, evil does not matter. It is incapable of mattering. It cannot live or mean things. The best it can do is look on in ire, envy, and despair. And the envious are always walled off from the world that we, the living, inhabit, by an invisible and impervious barrier that they erect themselves; they always have the deadly touch of King Midas. We defy evil and envy when we live. Living in this world sheds light into darkness. It is all we can do, and all that needs to be done, and it is more than enough. Therefore, we shall live. We shall be joyful, hard-working, silly, creative, and smart and sexy and brave and fun. Be a brief candle that helps spread another light.
– Timothy Sandefur, writing a long and moving item about a close relation who was one of the 14 people murdered in San Barnadino recently by Muslim terrorists. Read the whole, outstanding piece. I don’t know how Tim had the fortitude to write so well about such a terrible event to affect his family. The article contains links to charities and organisations well deserving of support.
I’m afraid I feel rather personally about the current immigration crises in the United States and Europe.
(Yes, we have a crisis in the United States as well, or at least, we have Presidential candidates with high poll numbers claiming that we do, and said candidates are threatening to enact draconian measures, including mass deportations.)
I take the matter quite personally because my own father was once a war refugee. Indeed, he was once a war refugee who, because he was a member of a non-Christian religion, was denied refuge in more or less every civilized part of the world. Seventy five years ago, of course, Jews were not considered particularly welcome even by countries that knew full well what was happening in Germany.
My father managed to save himself by ignoring laws that said that he wasn’t allowed to cross borders in the night without permission. Had it been up to many people, of course, he would have died instead, but he quite sensibly believed that he was under no moral obligation to pay attention to people who would have preferred him to remain where he was and die, and thus he formed his own immigration plan without the permission of the legal authorities at his destination.
(Of course, only this morning I read that Victor Orbán has complained that allowing Syrians into Europe would diminish the Christian character of the continent, the sort of claim I’ve heard before in different contexts, including from the political movement that forced my father to flee in the first place. This does bring to mind an ancient set of questions for adherents of Christianity, such as what sort of razor-wire walled internment camp designs Jesus would have favored, as well as whom Jesus would have deported. But I digress.)
For me, the question of immigration is, because of my family history, a very emotional one. None the less, I have given the matter a considerable amount of thought, and I believe that, although I care deeply about the issue, my position is still not an irrational one. Rather, I think that my family history simply allows me to put faces to the theoretical people who might be denied passage and die where they are, and thus gives me the ability to understand by example the human consequences of policies.
(Indeed, this is perhaps much the same thing that has happened for people who have viewed the the photographs of poor Aylan Kurdi, who drowned because even though his family had plenty of money to go from where they were to a place of safety, they had to give it to smugglers instead of to a reliable airline or ferry company. Seeing an individual face, hearing an individual name, makes it harder to ignore the consequences of a policy. But again, I digress.)
So, as I have said, I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve come to a straightforward conclusion. Anyone proposing that immigration from one country to another be stopped through the use of coercive state violence is, morally speaking, doing the equivalent of proposing to beat on the hands of a drowning man desperately trying to climb out of the sea.
I claim that there is no more moral justification for preventing a man from Homs from traveling to your town, renting a house and then looking for work than there would be for preventing a man from within the borders of your supposed “nation state” from doing the same. I have scoured the literature on moral philosophy and failed to find any justification for the claim that a man born across an imaginary line has particularly different rights than a man born within it. I claim this is true regardless of whether the man from Homs seeks to rent the house next door because he is fleeing for his life or because he prefers the weather in your part of the world.
Indeed, the only way to stop a man from Homs from traveling to your town, renting an apartment from a willing owner, and taking a job from a willing employer, would seem to be to threaten to do violence or actually to do violence to that man. Which is to say, the only way to prevent him from moving would be the initiation of violence against an entirely peaceful person who has done nothing whatsoever to the people doing violence to him.
Therefore, not only would it seem that there is no moral justification for preventing such behavior, and not only would it seem churlish, but it would also seem that, if anything at all can be called immoral, then doing violence to a peaceful person who wants nothing more than to rent a house, find a job and live as everyone else does is immoral. Perhaps, of course, there is no such thing as right and wrong beyond personal whim, perhaps morals are not a real thing at all, but if morals are indeed a real thing and if morality means anything useful, then clearly such acts are immoral.
I know that some, perhaps even here on Samizdata, would suggest that immigrants are coming to the West to take advantage of our generous state welfare policies. If you believe that, then there is a trivial solution. I will in no way oppose the proposal that the law that opens the border should also specify that immigrants and even their children should not receive state benefits until they’ve lived in the country for ten, or twenty, or, who cares, make it a thousand years if you like. I don’t believe in the dole or state benefits of any sort to begin with, so I can’t consistently oppose denying people such benefits.
I have heard some others say “but they will vote and they are illiberal!”, and if you believe that, fine, deny them the right to vote — I’m an anarchist, and as I don’t believe in elections in the first place, I feel comfortable with denying the franchise to immigrants forever if you feel that is necessary for you to agree to open the border.
But, if you refuse to consider opening the border even if those coming are doing so with their own resources, are renting or buying homes with their own money, are not taking state benefits and are not voting for more collectivism, then I am afraid that I do have to look askance at your position.
Which is to say, your position was immoral in the first place, but if you refuse to reverse a completely immoral position even if the supposed “pragmatic” rationale for holding it vanishes, then perhaps your rationale is not only immoral but was also not held for pragmatic reasons in the first place.
It would be nice if the world as a whole was a less awful place. The average country is, after all, a democratically elected kleptocracy with a desperately poor population. (For evidence, see India or Haiti or Nigeria or Honduras.)
However, sustained progress worldwide, at least if we’re going to run legal systems based on popular votes instead of more rational methods, depends on most of the world understanding basic economics. The recent rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in U.S. polling demonstrates that even the bulk of people in the U.S. have no understanding of the barest rudiments of economics.
H. L. Mencken once said “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” However, the argument of most statists, on both the left and the right, is that we are our brother’s keepers, that the better off are obligated to run the lives of those who are not so well off, and this includes the more educated running the lives of the less educated.
If you don’t believe me, look around you: we are told that people cannot be trusted to figure out on their own if they should take intoxicating substances or if they should save for retirement or how they should educate their children — all those decisions must be made by the intellectual elite via the state. This is meant quite literally. Drugs must not be legalized because people can’t make their own judgements about taking them, or so we are told. People in the U.S. may not be allowed to privately manage the 14% of their income that goes to government “pensions” — savings would be an awful idea, since they’d just be duped out of their cash by investment firms, so the state must handle that money for them via Social Security. Voucher systems where children go to private schools selected by their parents are unacceptable, only a state run public education system run by the teaching elite is acceptable.
We could go down the list, everything from negotiating salaries to deciding if they want to eat raw milk cheeses. If people were allowed to run their own lives, they would make bad choices, and so it is not merely right but necessary that others, among the elite, should make their choices for them.
So, the smarter must, according to statism, run the lives of the less intelligent and educated, but at the same time it is obvious that even most of the educated in developed countries are incapable of even understanding comparative advantage or supply and demand curves. They are, when it comes to economic education, mere children, unable to help themselves.
The inevitable conclusion, therefore, is that statist morality is not compatible with democracy, but only with a dictatorship run by libertarians.
Note that this isn’t the conclusion I would come to myself, as I don’t share this moral belief system. I don’t personally want to be the dictator — I have no interest in running everyone’s life. However, it is the conclusion that believers in the state, and especially believers in programs like Social Security and public education, must logically come to — applying that morality, a reasonable outcome can only be expected if I and my colleagues are made absolute rulers. Indeed, according to those moral claims, this is not merely a superior solution but is actually morally required.
And yes, I’m trolling you, but at the same time I’m completely serious about what the statist belief system implies.
Via Tim Blair and David Thompson, I came across this thoughtful philosophical discussion compèred by Joe Gelonesi of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.
Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
It seems that from both the child’s and adult’s point of view there is something to be said about living in a family way. This doesn’t exactly parry the criticism that families exacerbate social inequality. For this, Swift and Brighouse needed to sort out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.
‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.
I hesitate to add anything to David Thompson’s takedown. I would almost call it an exorcism. Thompson writes:
Conceivably, there are quite a few parents and children who would like to escape a state education similar to my own, where those deemed overly studious ran the risk of being bullied, tormented or whipped across the face with bootlaces, thanks to the attention of the school’s dozen or so budding sociopaths, who amused themselves, in corridors and in class, with apparent impunity. A state school, a comprehensive, where objects of discernible value were routine targets of vandalism and theft, and where the teaching of basic grammar was thought inegalitarian and therefore superfluous. A conceit embraced by other ‘progressive’ educational establishments.
But it’s not all Thou Shalt Not:
“In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.”
Ah, this “we” would allow.
“Swift makes it clear that although both elite schooling and bedtime stories might skew the family game, restricting the former would not interfere with the creation of the special loving bond that families give rise to. Taking the books away is another story.”
No, “we” won’t take your books away. So there’s that.
The one thing I feel compelled to add is that the philosopher (I think it is Swift rather than Brighouse who is being quoted) does concede that abolishing the family would be “a really bad idea”. He goes to some lengths to explain exactly why private schools should be abolished but reading bedtime stories should be permitted. No doubt all three, Gelonesi, Swift and Brighouse, feel genuine frustration that the rubes in the audience have got themselves so worked up. Why, the whole point of the theory of “familial relationship goods” is to show that reading to your children and other forms of passing on privilege within the domestic sphere can be justified!
Gelonesi is quite clear that Swift and Brighouse are defenders of the family:
Although it’s controversial, it seems that Swift and Brighouse are philosophically inching their way to a novel accommodation for a weathered institution ever more in need of a rationale for existing.
And there is the metacontext: the family is in need of a rationale for existing. From philosophers.
Philosophically, Swift and Brighouse’s argument that parental care is an acceptable deviation from the straight road to equality seems weak to me. If equality is the destination, the supreme principle, then familial love should be abolished.
“This week Short, probably Britain’s greatest-ever chess player, suggested that women were biologically worse at chess and that “rather than fretting about inequality, we should just get on with it.” The reaction has been predictably bitter.”
“I like Nigel Short. I went to see him play his 1993 world championship game against Kasparov. But I’m dismayed he said this — even if it turned out he was right — because it can become self-fulfilling.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
“Eppur si muove!” (“And yet it moves!”)
– Some say these words were muttered defiantly by Galileo Galilei after he was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth goes round the sun.
“I want more women to do computer science, not because of my views on gender equality but because I want more people in general to do science. The chess debate will make that harder. It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course. Hearing that you are also hard-wired to be worse at it is not going to help.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration”
– Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his robust defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public debate.
“Whatever biological influence on mathematical ability there may or may not be, there is indisputably a far greater influence: culture. Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”
– Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.
The Guardian reports:
Chimpanzees granted petition to hear ‘legal persons’ status in court
Wise’s argument in this case and others is that chimpanzees are intelligent, emotionally complex and self-aware enough to merit some basic human rights, such as the rights against illegal detainment and cruel treatment. They are “autonomous and self-determining”, in Wise’s words.
You can probably see why this post bears the “Self-ownership” tag. Many of the people arguing for legal personhood for animals are twerps like this one, who claims that she finds “discrimination on the grounds of species as distasteful as discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.”
However the arguments put forward by the Nonhuman Rights Project do not seem obviously wrongheaded to me. For instance they do discriminate on grounds of species, between higher and lower animals. This comes from their Q&A page:
Your first plaintiffs are chimpanzees, and you are also talking about elephants, whales and dolphins. What’s next after that? Dogs and pigs?
Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.
Here is a fact I find disturbing to contemplate: some severely mentally disabled human beings are less intelligent than chimpanzees. If our society does start to act on that fact in its laws I hope and pray that it does so in the direction of granting more rights to animals, not taking rights away from disabled humans.
Identity politics is spreading, filling the chasm where the politics of ideas used to be. Even the general election looks set to be a festival of identity, a less violent form of the communalistic politics we sniffily condemn in places like India. Politicos rarely speak of ‘the electorate’ anymore. Instead, they prefer to change their message depending on which ethnic, gender or generational pocket they’re talking to. Just look at Labour’s pink bus, Operation Black Vote and the Tories wooing of the ‘grey vote’. The end result is implicitly divisive, hinting that the young have different interests to the old, blacks think differently to whites, and women are a distinctive political species.
So writes Brendan O’Neill. He’s right, of course, about the vileness of this but doesn’t really drill down into how this state of affairs came to pass.
I put the rise of such “identity” politics, with its insistence that being “offended” about X or Y is sufficient reason to ban or harm said, down to a long process that to some extent has its origins towards the end of the period known as the “Enlightenment”. We saw early stirrings in the so-called “Romantic” era and the elevation of feeling and emotion above supposedly “cold” reason. The process really got under way, in my opinion, with the rise of post-modernism and with notions of relativism. We have even seen such nonsense as “feminist” science as opposed, say, to science per se. The very notion of there being an external, graspable reality that one cannot wish away is all of a piece with this mindset. (For more on the many horrors of post-modernism, I recommend Stephen Hicks and Raymond Tallis.) Allied to this is the way in which notions of self respect or self esteem have become conflated with a demand that others respect us and make us feel good regardless of any objective merit or otherwise. And for some people, they want to be respected not for any individual achievements or qualities (which might require a bit of work) but for simply being.
That a figure from the left such as Peter Tatchell has come in for the hatred of the PC, identity-politics left is richly ironic. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but on certain issues, not least in his brave approach to Zimbabwe, he is morally and intellectually in a different class to many of those on that side of the spectrum.