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The Big Lie

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I love George Monbiot’s polemic at the end of his Guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/30/putin-lie-machine-history-untruths

It ends:

Most of us recognise nonsense when we see it. Really? So how do we account for the fact that almost everyone in public life subscribes to the same set of preposterous beliefs? Let’s set aside the wild conspiracy theories of the far right, even though they’re now starting to infect the mainstream right. Let’s focus on the “acceptable” range of political opinion.

Nearly everyone who appears in the media, across almost the entire political spectrum, seems to accept that economic growth can and should continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Almost all believe that we should take action to protect life on Earth only when it is cost-effective. Even then, we should avoid compromising the profits of legacy industries. They appear to believe that something they call “the economy” takes priority over our life support systems.

They further believe that the unhindered acquisition of enormous wealth by a few people is somehow acceptable. They believe that taxes sufficient to break the cycle of accumulation and redistribute extreme wealth are unthinkable. They believe that permitting a handful of offshore billionaires to own the media, set the political agenda and tell us where our best interests lie is fine. They believe that we should pledge unquestioning allegiance to a system we call capitalism even though they are unable to define it, let alone predict where it might be heading.

No terror or torture is required to persuade people to fall into line with these crazy beliefs. Somehow our system of organised lying has created an entire class of politicians, officials, media commentators, cultural leaders, academics and intellectuals who nod along with them. Reading accounts of 20th-century terror, it sometimes seems to me that there was more dissent among intellectuals confronting totalitarian regimes than there is in our age of freedom and choice.

We have a truth crisis all right. But it is much deeper and wider than we care to admit. Perhaps the biggest lie of all is that the crisis is confined to the Kremlin’s falsehoods and the far right’s conspiracy theories. On the contrary, it is systemic and almost universal.

We are picking the wrong fights

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We are picking the wrong fights. Nick Cohen writing in the Guardian describes the Tories big idea of staying in power as one of endless conflict with the EU. With their ‘success’ in achieving Brexit,  the Conservative party apparently believe that perpetuating  arguments on trade and finance with Europe will keep them popular.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/06/tories-big-idea-for-staying-in-power-endless-conflict-with-the-eu.

This is entirely the wrong strategy. The world is dividing into two camps. One of which believes in the values of the enlightenment with its rational approach to decision making and its support for the basic human rights of equality and freedom. The other is dominated by populist countries led by charismatic leaders bent on pursuing their own self-interest, no matter what the consequence for others. The list of countries in the populist camp includes Russia, Brazil, Hungary, India and Turkey. These countries often exploit religious fervour to support their objectives. Some countries like Iran and Pakistan make religious nationalism the primary concern of their government. There are also countries in the West that are in danger of taking the populist path. The USA is a particular concern. The danger of Trumpism is not yet over. Trump has changed the Republican party to one which has abandoned rationality and democracy in favour of a partisan approach to government. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/03/republican-party-democracy-political-violence-trumpism

The road to populism is the way to international disaster. The future of mankind depends on nations co-operating with each other in so many areas: the environment, health, taxation, trade, energy, technology and so many others. Popularism is the antithesis of this. It stirs up jingoistic sentiments in the population and promotes the false narrative that in this globally interactive world we can control our own destiny without the help of others.

The liberal humanist ideas of the enlightenment have benefited mankind greatly.  In much of the world, we now live 3 times longer than our peasant ancestors and have immensely richer and more rewarding lives.  By abandoning co-operation, rationality and human rights, populism now represents a potent danger to our lifestyle. To prevent it those with liberal humanist attitudes have to step up to the plate. We have to become more fervent in expressing our beliefs and defending out way of life. We have to mobilise international co-operation to confront the evolutionary dangers ahead.

It has been shown in human history that only religions and philosophies of life have the power to unite national groups. Think of Catholic Europe in the crusades, or Communists in the cold war or the feeling of brotherhood of those with the Islamic faith. Liberal humanism has been the dominant philosophy of life of democratic capitalist countries for the past sixty years. However, liberal humanism has developed naturally. No guru has specifically espoused its ideals. No group specifically rallies round its principles. Except perhaps humanists, but they are a very small group. Many religious leaders have initially rejected some liberal humanist values and some still do. But time has moved on. I would argue that many of their congregations are more tolerant and actively support liberal humanist attitudes. Also, in much of the Western World, the non-religious represent the  majority of the population and  liberal humanism is their inherited philosophy of life.

If we are to stand up to populism liberal humanists of all persuasions need to work together to confront the challenges ahead. We need to reach out across national boundaries to reject tribal instincts. We need to reinforce the principles of rationality, equality and liberty, together with new ideas of preserving the environment. Only by cooperating can we make the world a better place for our children

 

 

Democracy for Sale

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Democracy for SaleAll communities, except self -sufficient farmers and hunter-gatherers, have to rely on the acquisition of wealth for survival; companies sell goods, states levy taxes and families depend on wage earners. Communities that provide a service to their members, such as charities, member-owned golf-clubs and religions, rely on membership subscription. How this membership subscription is gathered, matters.

To ensure they serve their communities, Buddhist monks are not allowed to own personal wealth.  In villages in Laos, monks collect food in begging bowls from local villagers. In return they provide education to the children and religious support to the village. Just like all non-profit making communities, those that provide the funds are entitled to have a say in its running and enjoy some of its benefits.

There was a time when the main source of political party income was member subscription. Quite early in the twentieth century the Labour party became excessively beholden to trade-union funds. As a result, the trade-union political agenda had a large influence on Labour policies. Similarly, the Conservative party became more dependent on business donations, and wealthy business men who funded the party gained access to ministers and were rewarded with honours. Both developments  eroded the influence of the general membership over party policy and gave a small number of individuals outside government a say in the way the country was run.

In the last three decades there has been a trend for right-wing parties to rely increasingly on income from a few rich individuals. These individuals are libertarians who want low taxes, minimum state control and are against all forms of cross-community support. This happened first with the Republican party in America and is spreading to Britain. Peter Geoghegan in his book Democracy for Sale tells the story about how this occurred during the Brexit debate and its aftermath.

This trend towards a few individuals having an excessive influence on the Conservative party has accelerated under Boris Johnson’s leadership. We now live in a country run by ‘Access capitalism’, where the rich pay money to get the ear of the Prime Minister. The Pandora Papers ( https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/05/access-tory-party-tycoon-funders-pandora-papers)  have recently revealed the extent to which the Tory party is beholden to off-shore funds from Russian oligarchs, corrupt business men and tax exiles. We now have the situation in which Boris Johnson, no longer reliant on funds from British business, is now blaming his former partners for the post-Brexit difficulties the country is now facing. At least in the old days trade-unions and businesses were British based organisations who had some interest in the health and wealth of Britain as a whole. We now have the situation where a few non- residents and foreigners are manipulating British policy for their own interest. The health of democracy in Britain has reached a new low ebb.

 

 

The Future of Capitalism

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The Future of CapitalismIn the Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier makes a practical attempt to move economic theory forward from nineteenth century views of humans only being driven by self-interest and greed. The neo-liberal ideas, that this distortion spawned, are to blame for the 2008 financial crash and the huge divisions in society that exist today; the UK is a nation divided between an affluent, educated city-based elite and disaffected town -dwellers left behind by the effects of globalisation.

A key to his thesis is to recognise that belonging to a community is vital to man’s sense of identity. Most people gain their sense of identity from their family, their job and their nationality. The educated elite take pride in their profession, travel widely and place less emphasis on nationality. For the less-educated the situation is different. The rise of one-parent families, insecure jobs, Covid and many other issues has put immense strain on family life. Jobs for the skilled working class in manufacturing have disappeared as a result of globalisation and have been replaced by low-skilled precarious work in services and logistics. With both pride in the job disappearing and the pressures on family life, nationhood has come to be even more important in defining the identity of the less-well off.

This division became clear in the Brexit vote, which represented a failure of the radical left to engage and understand the disadvantaged. As Paul Collier says:

By eschewing shared belonging, and the benign patriotism that it can support, liberals have abandoned the only force capable of uniting societies behind remedies. Inadvertently, recklessly, they have handed it to the charlatan extremes, which are gleefully twisting it to their own warped purposes.

The election of Trump in the USA and the collapse of the red wall in the UK have been the result.

Paul Collier advocates that supporting communities needs to become central to economic thinking. He has developed ideas that support young disadvantaged families, that refocus businesses on developing a stable and skilled workforce, and that build and support local communities.

It is a good start, but only when economists fully understand that it is community development and memetic evolution that drives society forward will a more complete set of beneficial policies emerge.

 

 

Democracy is the art of thinking independently together

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Mejklejohn‘Democracy is the art of thinking independently together’ said the American philosopher, Alexander Meikljohn. If this is true then this art has been lost in the West and democratic government is in crisis as a consequence.

One problem is that the tribalism of party politics gets in the way of effective democratic processes. Too often party loyalty trumps rational decision-making.  A scandalous example of this occurs in the Committee stage of law-making at the House of Commons. This is the stage in which the finer points of a proposed law are discussed and problem areas are supposed to be resolved. Isobel Hardman in her book Why we get the Wrong Politicians describes the process as non-functional: in effect a charade. The government has a majority on the committee. They select the participating MPs, not for their knowledge and interest, but for their compliance; these doormats of politicians are expected to support the Government at all times. During the committee meetings only opposition MPs raise issues. Government MPs, with nothing to contribute, spend their time on other work such as answering emails on their laptops. The Government deliberately side-lines MPs who think independently and actively discourages rational discussion.

Debates in the Chamber are little better, too often political discussion appears to be a process in which the deaf shout at each other. No points are conceded, no questions are answered and no light is shed on the issues discussed. Party dogma and party loyalty rules.

Alexander Meikljohn also believed that democracy should mean self-government by the people; by this he meant that the Government should be involved in an informed dialogue with the electorate.   At the present time, the public is rarely enlightened by political discussion. The accepted art of a politician seems to be avoiding answering difficult questions. Never admit to a mistake is a mantra. New ideas are rarely discussed as politicians stick rigidly to the party line. As politicians waffle non-responses, media interviews frustrate both interviewer and public alike.

The tribalism of party politics is at its worst in the USA. Democrats and Republicans are barely on speaking terms. The American constitutional system was designed as a balance of power, involving discussion and compromise.  Too often Democrats dominate Congress and Republicans the Senate;  the result is stalemate. During the last two presidencies there have been long periods in which Congress barely functions at all.

flatpack democracyWe desperately need cultural change in the way our politicians behave. The excesses of tribal behaviour need to be curbed to allow issue identification and resolution. The remnants of effective democratic processes in the House of Commons survive in conventions for speaking courtesies: representatives must be addressed as Right Honourable and members are not allowed to use ‘unparliamentary language’. But the essence of the democratic processes  have been so degraded over time that there needs to be a root and branch review of systems and codes of behaviour. Politics would be much more effective if representatives listened to other views, ceded points of discussion and reached genuine rational decisions. It’s not rocket science.  It needs good chairing and agreed rules of conduct, such as those suggested by Peter Macfadyn in his book Flatpack Democracy. There is a precedent for change to be possible. According to Isobel Hardman, Select Committees, introduced in 1979, have a different political culture in which members are much less partisan.

As soon as people identify as a group, tribal behaviour becomes inevitable. A truly effective democracy depends on its culture and its processes to minimise this behaviour and allow rational discussion to take place. In Britain and the USA, at least, these democratic norms have fallen into disrepair. The West’s position in the world pecking order is under threat from populist movements, Chinese militarism and the success of East Asian forms of democratic government. If the West is to maintain its international competitiveness it will need to look again at its failing democratic procedures and revise them to be fit for the 21st century.

 

Misinformation

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Rational decision making in democracies is becoming increasingly difficult due to the tide of misinformation launched by social media and lobby groups. There are those that support climate change denial, refute the seriousness of hospital admissions due to Covid, anti-vacs’ and many others. The purveyors of these mistruths are a danger to society and themselves. George Monbiot writing in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/27/covid-lies-cost-lives-right-clamp-down-misinformation argues that ‘claims representing a danger to life’ should be prohibited. Few would disagree.

misinformation

However, misinformation is more than a danger to life, it is a threat to democracy itself. This has been demonstrated with the election of Trump and the continual loyalty of his supporters, despite his lies, and his illegal and narcissistic behaviour. Trump has gathered a xenophobic tribe of followers who cherish his opinions, irrespective of their validity. This is a common characteristic of dictators.

Anne Applebaum in her book The Twilight of Democracy writes:

twilight of democracyAuthoritarians need people who will promote the riot or launch a coup. But they also need people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need embers of the intellectual elite, in other words, who will launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, give voice to grievances…. [by] betraying the central task of an intellectual, the search for truth, in favour of particular political causes.

 

Pseudo-scientists that give validity to false and dangerous ideas are a serious threat both to life and democratic institutions. It is they that have given credibility to climate change denial, vaccination scares and downplaying the Covid threat. Taken up by unscrupulous rumour mongers with their own political agenda they manage to confuse arguments, obfuscate the truth and warp decisions.

The BBC, for all its virtues, has given time and credibility to these agents of disinformation in order to give a ‘balanced view’. Contrarian arguments, however bizarre, make for entertaining listening. We all have the right to speak freely but there are limits. The freedom to disseminate misinformation has been exploited by rumour mongers in a way that is dangerous to society.

Lobby groups and malicious organisations who deliberately distort the truth do not support the principles of eco-humanity. It is hard to overstate the danger they represent to our society. We need to take more direct steps to protect ourselves.

Democracy in crisis

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Democracy is in crisis. Representative democracy, invented in the eighteenth century, is no longer fit for purpose. Politicians have 2 major roles: to represent and to govern.  They are failing in both.

Over the course of history, those elected in a representative democracy have rarely come from a broad cross-section of the electorate.  In Britain, democracy began as a popularity contest between local power-brokers of the ruling class.  In the nineteenth century, as the electorate was broadened, middle-class politicians muscled in on power. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a brief scary period for the upper echelons when working class people were elected and opinions of all classes were heard in Parliament. Today, however, the less well-off are again excluded. Gaining a degree has become a necessary qualification to be selected as a candidate. Britain is divided between those that went to university and those that didn’t. Those without degrees are unrepresented and their opinions are rarely sought. The result has been protest and populism as expressed in the election of Trump, the Brexit referendum and the French gilet jaune.

demcracy in crisis

The recent record of governance by Western democracies is also poor. Good decision making is hampered by the fact that political parties are only guaranteed to be in power for up to five years. This means governments focus on the short term. If there are difficult decisions to be made that could be unpopular, the temptation is to delay. When the pace of evolution was slower in the 19th and early 20th century the problem wasn’t so serious. Nowadays it is disastrous. Every major issue, whether it be climate change, the pandemic or the divided society, is being tackled too late. Only when problems become destructively overwhelming are solutions sought. By then much of the damage has been done.

We expect a lot of our politicians. They are required to be responsive to the needs of their constituents at the same time as looking after the interests of the nation as a whole. They are supposed to stay in contact with ordinary people while simultaneously running the country. We require them to respond to the latest petty scandal at the same time as looking after the long-term future of the country. They are supposed to be excellent communicators with their finger on the pulse of the nation as well as understanding the detailed minutiae of government issues. In office, we expect them to be excellent managers, with no training, expertise or experience in their roles. It is too much to ask.

The current form of representative democracy isn’t the only possible method of government in which people elect their leaders. If we are to confront the challenges ahead, we need new types of democratic institution which improve both governance and representation. Ones better able to foster excellence, capable both of taking the long-term view and, at the same time, representing the people in a more active fashion.

For more listen to David Runciman on BBC Sounds  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0005f8w

Humans are clever enough to avoid climate change?

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Evolution drives change in the natural world. Human ‘progress’ is also an evolutionary process. It is driven by competing individuals and communities all trying to obtain wealth and improve their way of life. As a species we have been spectacularly successful. However, all species have environmental limits to growth. With the effects of climate change, environmental destruction, dwindling water supplies and pollution beginning to bite hard, it is clear that human activity is now approaching the limits that the Earth can support.

Humans are unique animals; we can reason and we understand many of the laws that determine the workings of the universe.  Scientists have been warning for decades of the perils of climate change. Many people believed them, but the issue was too big for individuals to tackle and too nebulous for them to demand action from politicians. I naively thought that when the adverse effects became clear and obvious that attitudes would change. That the human race would see climate change as a genuine emergency and begin to tackle the issue with urgency.

Climate chang in AustraliaI was wrong. Images of Australia burning seem to have little effect. You’d think that Australians, in the front line of catastrophic droughts, floods and fires would, by now, be demanding that their government front up to the problem. You’d be wrong. Writing in the Guardian Lenore Taylor reports:

… despite the widespread sense that the fires are a tipping point, despite global outrage at the self-defeating stupidity of our policies, despite the world’s largest fund manager ditching thermal coal, despite the wave of grief and anger from around the world – even from James Murdoch – it’s still not clear that Australian public opinion will force this government to change.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/17/if-the-bushfires-wont-force-climate-policy-change-we-need-to-circumvent-scott-morrison

 

How bad does it have to get before we act? It is already clear that the global temperature rise will surpass the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Climate Change accord in 1916.  We are certainly on course for at least a 2-degree rise. Will we act when the rise exceeds even this? For the first time I am beginning to have my doubts whether the human species, despite all its cleverness, is capable of altering the path of evolution

Our political system is failing us

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It’s not just our politicians that are failing us, it’s the whole political system of government.

The UK’s democratic processes were forged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a world in which the pace of change was slower, the welfare state had yet to be born and emperors and monarchs exercised real power in many countries of the world. The complexities of governance that our leaders face today are many times more challenging than 2 centuries ago.

In business, candidates for job vacancies without a relevant track record would have little chance of success. In the UK, ministers are often catapulted into managing government departments for which they have no practical knowledge. As a result, they often act in an amateur knee-jerk fashion responding to each crisis as it occurs. Education and the National Health Service, in particular, have suffered greatly with ministers micro-managing according to their own pet ideas. Political ability is no guarantee of any management ability.

Listen to what Rory Stewart has to say about his own ministerial experience:

Our terms are absurdly short. I held five ministerial jobs in four years. Just as I was completing my 25-year environment plan, I was made a Middle East minister. Just as I was trying to change our aid policy in Syria, I was made the Africa minister. Just as I was finishing my Africa strategy, I was moved to prisons. I promised to reduce violence in prisons in 12 months, and violence was just beginning to come down – when I was made secretary of state for international development. How can this be a serious way to run a country?

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/06/rory-stewart-hope-i-got-out-of-tories-before-it-was-too-late

Surely leaders of state institutions need to be selected on their proven ability in office? We need leaders of our education systems, transport infrastructure, tax collection systems, health care and all our other major offices of state  who can build on expertise to construct world-class cost-effective institutions. This can’t be achieved by part-time appointees with little relevant experience.

Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN

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Greta at the UNGreta Thunberg’s speech to the UN summarised perfectly our moral duty to preserve the planet for future generations.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering, people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight? You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil and that I refuse to believe.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in ten years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees and the risk of setting up irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you, but those numbers do not include tipping points most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution, or the aspects of equity and climate justice.

They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50 percent risk is simply not acceptable to us. We who have to live with the consequences. To have a 67 percent chance of staying below the 1.5 degree of temperature rise, the best odds given by the IPCC, the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1, 2018.

Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 that entire budget will be gone is less than 8 and a half years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today because these numbers are too uncomfortable and you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

You are failing us, but young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this, right here, right now, is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.