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The Big Lie

By Uncategorized

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.

Liberal Humanists need to rally to the cause

By political thought

Democracies the world over are in deep crisis. Evolution is accelerating bringing huge challenges to advanced societies.  Issues resulting from an aging population, globalisation and new technologies have not been faced; the crises resulting from climate change, pandemics and immigration are piling on additional pressures. Nowhere is this democratic failure felt worse than in the USA.  Decades of political paralysis between the Democratic and Republican parties has resulted in a hugely discontented electorate.

Legions of Trump supporters are turning the Republican party against democracy. Republican Senators and Congressmen are lining up behind Trump in his rejection of the presidential election result. They are condoning his encouragement of rioters who marched on Congress and built gallows for those politicians who stood in their way. According to Johnathon Friedland writing in the Guardian, surveys show that 30% of Republicans say that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jan/07/trump-biden-republicans-election-lies-midterms One of the cradles of modern democracy is in danger moving towards authoritarianism and civil conflict.

With their rejection of democratic processes, the Republican party now represents the antithesis of liberal humanist values. Rational judgement is being replaced by patriotic fervour. Egalitarian policies that help the less well-off are being set aside. Freedoms for women, immigrants and the poor are being supressed. Despite all the recent physical proofs, climate change is still being denied. Their rejection of international co-operation in favour of a narrow view of ‘America First’ nationalism would be disastrous for confronting the coming environmental crisis.

rallying to the causeThe old political divisions of left and right are now no longer so important. People have a critical decision to make as to whether they support democracy and liberal humanist values or not. Decades of progress in the health and wealth of citizens of the advanced world are under threat. A battle is coming up for the heart and soul of the electorate. Liberal humanists need to recognise the danger and to rally around the cause. Rejection of liberal humanist values in favour of a narrow tribal nationalism would be disastrous for international co-operation, the environment, and the future of our children

The moral culture of modern Western society is liberal humanism – we need to celebrate its achievements

By political thought

For a country to be stable its citizens have to accept the rule of law and, for laws to be seen as just, they must be underpinned by a common morality. For most of human history this common morality has been determined by priests. Old men consulted sacred texts and divined what they perceived to be God’s will. Religions determined acceptable behaviour: the role of women, crimes and punishments and many other mores of daily life. This moral control even extended to economic crimes such as usuary and to scientific argument on the functioning of the natural world.

After the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the church started to lose its monopoly on determining moral issues. There began in the West a long process of establishing a new moral code based on natural principles. As Barack Obama said in later times:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or (invoke) God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is relevant to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This new ‘universal‘ morality became based on  the liberal ideas of freedom and equality that emerged in Britain and the USA in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alongside natural humanistic ideals of behaviour. It has no recognised name, for want of a better phrase I call it secular liberal humanism. It has transformed our lives.

The natural world is no longer seen as controlled by Gods, demons and spirits. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena, including evolution and the creation of the world, are accepted as truths. The old fatalism of religions is no longer present. During the Covid crisis, no one said that this was a punishment from God- medical solutions were sought and found.

Slavery as an institution no longer exists. Its abolition was inspired by Christians in Britain and America, imbued with liberal ideas. As the poet William Cowper wrote in 1785:

We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free, they touch our country, and their shackles fall.

This change from a rigid religiously inspired morality has accelerated since the Second World War. Women have gained a more important role in society and we have become less judgemental of minorities. No longer are divorcees, unmarried mothers, bastards and homosexuals stigmatised. We have set laws for discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability, race or religion. It is far from perfect but there appears to be a genuine desire to create a kinder, more caring world based on humanistic principles.

At every stage many religious leaders have resisted change, but most of their congregations have embraced the new morality. I have attended several inter-faith groups and It has become apparent to me that many, perhaps most, religious people in the West also de facto support secular liberal humanist ideals.  The same sex marriage vote and abortion vote in Ireland in 2015 and 2018 are the latest example of congregations embracing the new morality against the advice of their priests.

The principles of liberal humanism now determine the morality of all Western countries. Its natural authority allows both religious and non-religious to live together in harmony, sharing the same moral code.  It is certain that it has transformed our lives for the better. However, it is not celebrated as the revolutionary force it is. It has evolved naturally – it doesn’t even have a recognised name. No one prophet has espoused its ideals. No group specifically rallies round its principles. Except humanists, but we are a very small proportion of the population.

Since globalisation and the advent of social media the world has become increasingly fractious. If we are to continue to reap the benefits of  liberal humanism in the West, we need to positively embrace it as our common morality, uniting us across religious and national boundaries.  We need to name it, understand its force, celebrate its success and unite behind its principles. If we do so, we will be stronger together and better able to co-operate to confront the global challenges ahead.

We are picking the wrong fights

By Uncategorized

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

By Uncategorized

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

By Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Happiness is not enough

By economics

happiness is not enoughIn his book Can we be happier?,  Richard Layard advocates that the central driving principle of mankind should be to maximise the  total happiness experienced by all individuals across a society.

It represents a brave attempt by a trained economist to advocate that governments change the objective of maximising GDP growth to one of looking to improve the health, wealth and quality of life of its citizens as measured by their happiness.

I don’t think the author does any favours to his idea by using the term happiness. Happiness conjures images of silliness, unthinking behaviour and short-term enjoyment. This is not what he means. In the book happiness is measured by asking people how satisfied they are with their life. Life-satisfaction, in my view is quite a different concept, in implies a contentment with one’s position in the world. The book should be retitled Can we be more satisfied with our lives?

He says:

The challenge to development economists is clear. Grinding poverty has to be eliminated. It destroys happiness and shortens lives. But it is wrong to go helter-skelter for growth. What is needed is a deliberate process whereby genuine communities are maintained or created – communities which give people the feeling of belonging and purpose.

All this is true but this will not be achieved by focussing solely on life-satisfaction. The measurement is unaspirational, unaccepting of change and self -centred. I believe a better measure of human progress is life-fulfilment.

To quote from Compete or Co-operate:

I believe there are two aims for human society that most of us can support. The first is for as many people as possible to live a sufficiently healthy and safe existence that they can achieve life fulfilling roles in their communities.  The second is to achieve an ecologically stable presence on Earth, one in which the future of humanity is secure and the natural world is protected. The pursuit of life fulfilment is a specifically human objective. It is an expression of the human requirement to have purpose and meaning in life. All humans need recognition and praise for their achievements, however small they may be. Life-fulfilment can be as elemental as bringing up a family, but it also can be gained by work, participating in sport, and providing support to others in the community.  Its outcome is directly related to the needs of society as a whole and not necessarily based on material reward or personal self-gratification.

Concentrating on maximising happiness alone will not be enough to create a successful society.

 

Why democracy is always behind the game

By political thought

Democratic failureOver the past few months, we have seen a glimpse of the future direction that evolution is taking us. Catastrophic destruction of the natural world has resulted in floods, fires and pandemics. We’ve known of this potential outcome for decades. However, precious little has happened to stop it occurring.

Scientists know what needs to be done, technologies have been developed, necessary changes in lifestyle have been identified.  All that is needed is to put these new ideas into effect. Political leaders have, however, failed to react fast enough.

There appears to be a fundamental problem in democracies. They are unable to deal with future risks. Most people are overwhelmingly occupied with day-to- day problems and are naturally less concerned about the long-term. And because only popular politicians get re-elected, democratic leaders are reluctant to propose action ahead of the public consensus. Leaders who have the ability to lead public opinion and inspire the public to alter behaviour, are very rare. Social media and active programmes of disinformation do not help.

Democracies have two main functions, to govern and to represent. At present they are failing on both counts. In terms of governance, they have failed to deal with change in the natural world, resulting in climate change, pandemics, loss of biodiversity.  They have equally failed to deal with changes in the economy, resulting in an insecure workforce, massive wealth discrepancies and an abrogation of power to tech giants. In terms of representation, they have failed to connect with the public and understand how globalisation and new technologies have negatively affected lifestyles. As a consequence, we have seen the growth of the gig-economy, falling life expectancy and a massive change in wealth distribution. In many countries, including the USA and the UK, leaders have reverted to a crude appeal to nationalist sentiment, blaming foreign influence for their problems.

Across the world there is a deep crisis brewing for mankind.  Democratic governments appear unable to react fast enough to the accelerating effects of evolution. They are reacting to change rather than anticipating problems and mitigating their affects. If democracies are to survive, they have to reconsider their operational processes to allow more long-term thinking. However, no democratic government appears able to look critically at its own modus operandi. Procedures once established are rarely changed. Many of the operational rules of the House of Commons were in place three centuries ago. The USA is bound by a constitution established in the eighteenth century.

The crisis is clear. Democracy in its present form appears unable to respond.

 

Utopia

By economics

In his book Utopia for Realists Rutger Bergman despairs of the lack of inspirational leadership coming from the progressive element of society.

Utopia for RealistsThese days the left seems to have forgotten the art of Politics. Worse , many left -wing thinkers and politicians attempt to quell radical sentiments among their own rank and file in their terror of losing votes. This attitude is one I’ve begun to think of in recent years as the phenomenon of ‘underdog socialism’. .  Sadly, the underdog socialist has forgotten that the story of the left ought to be a narrative of hope and progress.

Since the 70’s neo-liberal reasoning has dominated political thinking. Despite the financial crash of 2008, progressive thinkers have presented no coherent alternative ideas that have gained general support. The only economic policy that has gained ground has resulted in a backward lurch towards the protectionist ideas of populism.

Bergman believes that progressive thinkers have failed to effectively challenge the neo-liberal economic thinking which has created tax havens, the gig economy, bloated bankers and bullshit jobs and is building a divided society which is destroying the planet. It is not sufficient to empathise with the poor or to reason and warn of the dangers ahead.  Economics provide the basic rationale for government policy. To confront the challenges ahead we need progressive thinkers to paint a coherent economic picture of the future which provides hope, motivation and encouragement to all.

Democracy is the art of thinking independently together

By Uncategorized

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.