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Friday, 28 October 2011

At Occupy London LSX

I managed to spend a couple of hours at St Paul’s, London last week visiting the #occupylsx camp that’s rocked up there.

Most of the occupiers are young, perhaps early 20s. Whilst there a call went around requesting help from anyone on site able to argue the case for economic reform with a visiting banker.

A crowd of occupiers listened politely to what the banker had to say. From time-to-time he was interrupted, not least by me, (to my liking he was listened to far too respectfully ) but the occupiers tossed perfectly reasonable arguments back in his direction.

‘The reason we’re all in so much debt is because governments – in particular the last Labour government - allowed banks to lend so much money.’ said the banker.

This struck me as a novel take on the coalition government’s austerity propaganda. The argument that asserts austerity is a consequence of profligate public spending in the past and not merely a conservative rendition of the same policy of neoliberalism but with slightly less public investment. Here the banker appeared to be claiming that the previous Labour government had somehow forced the banks to lend irresponsibly, against their wishes.

I asked the banker if he did not see any correlation between the rise in debt and the suppression of wages during the last 30 years. I might as well have been clicking and clacking like a dung beetle, so alien did the proposition appear to him.

A woman clutching a baby interjected with the perfectly reasonable argument that an economy ought to work towards human ends, meet human needs etc.

Responding the banker implied that she was ‘foolish’ to think the coat she wore, the shoes she stood in or the food she ate could exist without the largesse of banks. At a stroke he illustrated perfectly how far the bourgeois can become alienated from its humanity. How the capitalist, who benefits most from capitalism, is himself, enslaved to it.

The occupation’s achievement is worth many times that of the absent politicians who ought to be championing its cause (John McDonnell MP and a few others have tabled a Early Day Motion inParliament expressing solidarity with the occupiers). Although Lord Glasman, the Blue Labourite has recently found common cause withthe occupiers over the issue of the Corporation of London.

Whilst on site, I made a donation. I would have dragged bottles of butane (something the camp has been short on) or a truckload of wooden pallets (a secure base on which to site a tent in a windy public plaza). Instead I gave some money.  I hope they stay as long as they can and when I’m in London I will make sure I spend more time there.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

'What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don't steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don't strike.' - Wilhelm Reich

A month on from August’s unprecedented riots in England, we can begin to ask the host of
questions needed to uncover why they occurred and what they mean. Tim Newburn and
the LSE’s Department of Social Policy, together with the Guardian newspaper, the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundation are beginning a three-month indepth study into the causes and consequences of the recent riots.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Ed Miliband's Values

‘Value’ was at the semiotic core of Ed Milliband’s 2011 Labour Conference speech. In an oration of some 5,880 words,‘values’ popped up more than any other, a staggering 45 times in all (although a leak from Conservative Central Office puts a much lower figure).

By contrast he mentioned ‘predators’ and ‘producers’ six times apiece. Workers (zero), bankers (zero) and capitalism (zero) propped up the semiotic table.

A Guardian editorial linked to a recent paper on ‘ethical socialism’ by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford with the implication that this might provide some intellectual background to Miliband’s conference rhetoric.

Miliband’s speech was to my ear one of moral certainty.

He spoke of: ‘the true values of Britain…’ adding that these truths were self-evident to his audience, ‘You know what your values are.’ He said.

But there are pitfalls for politicians who rely on moral certainty, see John Major’s ‘back to basics’ policy of the early 90s,  or consider the conscientious but ultimately erroneous moral position adopted by Tony Blair in his decision to invade Iraq. Conscientious in the sense that he probably believed it was the right thing to do. Erroneous in the sense that an appeal to individual conscience is inherently difficult to assess. Such an appeal could be insincere, untrue or mistaken; and therefore arbitrary and capricious (see Donkey passim).

Moral certainty too often leads to the adoption of arbitrary, fixed and inflexible positions and it leaves the politician exposed to contradictions.

‘…the lesson I have learnt about this job and myself over the last twelve months.
To be true to myself…. My values.

However, one reason why a politician like Ed Miliband would put morality at the core of his speech lies in the assumption that such ‘values’ are universal, or in the case of the speech in question, universal to Britain. In a liberal democracy, values are said to transcend categories like race, class, sex, occupation, they therefore they transcend political constituences. ‘Neutral’ appeals for greater ‘responsibility’ can in this way be aimed at the ‘benefit cheat’ and ‘bankster’ alike, all the easier to avoid the traps set by media and political opponents. This type of transcendence, it seems to me, might be crucial to triangulation , the tactical principle adopted by many politicians.

But it reasonable to question if such statements really are neutral and not in reality a reflection of a ruling set of values. One way to find out would be to subject such statements to a test. Habermas’s Discourse Ethics is helpful here in providing a set of discourse ethical rules of moral argumentation a corrolary of which is the highlighting of the ideological content of apparently neutral statements.

It is not uncommon to hear people talk of the run up to 2008 as a morally debased period, during which greed was said to have become a good. And whilst attitudes like this are rarely trumpted on live TV I sincerely doubt that greed has been vanquished.
What of the ‘enlightened self-interest’ advocated by Adam Smith deemed a necessary oil to the proper functioning of a capitalist society? In the Grundrisse, Marx re-phrased enlightened self-interest as ‘generalised selfishness’.

Call it what we may, enlightened self-interest / generalised selfishness can be viewed as a normalised social relation between individuals forced to compete in a capitalist society. Greed, selfishness and inequality seem to be hardwired into such societies.
Miliband’s position is probably that we should not seek to rid society of these selfish norms, but that we should tame them.
It will be interesting to see how specific policy proposals are value-audited in the future.