What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Grumble 16: an Anatomy of Social Democracy

Social democracy is generally defined as a system of political thought which seeks to have the government involved in many spheres of activity in society so as to bring about good social outcomes. It differs from socialism in that there is no necessity felt in social democracy for the government to control every aspect of the economy, only those that are felt to have to be controlled in order to bring about those said outcomes.

There is a commitment in social democracy to social equality, otherwise you might as well leave society to own devices (as does (neo)-liberalism). (Conservatism often intervenes to push society towards inequity).

The other thing to mention about social democracy, however, is that it is almost nowhere practised currently. It was the programme of the British Labour Party from the 1940s to the 70s, the Australian Labor Party in the same period, and other similar parties in the English-speaking world in that period. However, as the 1980s approached neo-liberalism in its unholy alliance with conservatism began to take over the political spectrum; the corporate masters spoke, the tolerance they had extended to social democracy between the Second World War and the 1970s was withdrawn. Why this is is an interesting question, the assumption has been that the corporate world saw greater social equality produced by social democracy as tending to increase the market for its products, but by the 1970s had grown impatient with this model and returned to a more traditional, pre WW2, model of building a less equal society where a smaller circle of privileged people participated in greater advantage and boosted consumption that way.

My own view is that the corporate world of that time was, unconsciously or not, recognising the limits to growth and realising that the general prosperity desired by social democracy was just not possible, especially when all the people of the world, including the ‘3rd World’, and not just the poorer people of the first world, were considered. They were preparing for a future in which prosperity was shared by a much smaller circle of people, and because the compliances necessary for these social arrangements were going to be ugly, and increasingly ugly as time went on, so the material rewards had to be significant.

The neo-liberal argument that prosperity has increased more quickly since the 1980s, since the social democratic programme was abandoned, is contradicted by the following observations:
  • wealth has increased, both within western countries and across the world, but social inequality has increased, and the position of a social underclass, both within western countries and across the world, has solidified;
  • the ecological limits of human economic activity have been exceeded from the 1980s onwards.

And this indeed is problem with social democracy, despite its attractive features—its commitment to social equality, its commitment to state-sponsorship of large parts of the social fabric (as opposed to the madness of privatisation)—it still remains committed to unsustainable growth. Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister under the Australian Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s once said words the effect that as a social democrat he was committed to running the economy as fast as possible in order for there to be more wealth to share around. The irony of this, besides its ecological impossibility in the long-term, is that it postpones equality into the future, until more economic growth has occurred, and some more, and some more....

So even where social democracy does still exist, as in the Scandinavian countries, other European countries, and few places elsewhere in the world such as Kerala state in India, or Costa Rica, it is not immune from the dramas and contradictions of later modernity.

However, the worst thing about social democracy, despite, as I have described, its almost complete abeyance in English-speaking countries, is that where green movements have emerged, they have, as it were, usurped the space of social democratic movements. For example, recently, an Australian political commentator stated that the Australian Greens were similar to ‘an ordinary European social democratic party’. This was meant as a compliment, but apart from the commitment to the decencies of social living such as equality, justice and ‘a fair-go’, which other parties seem to have lost sight of, or never entertained in the first place, the entanglement of the Greens with Social Democracy is not a positive thing.

The problem is that the Australian Greens don’t seem to the have grasped the problem of economic growth and are still sharing in the delusion that if we can carry out a few cosmetic changes all will be well. Symptomatic of this is what I call aesthetic green politics. The Australian green movement first rose to prominence in the 1980s with a series of campaigns over ‘wilderness’ areas, such as opposing the raising of the water level in Tasmania’s Lake Pedder for a hydro-electric scheme. Don’t get me wrong, there was no reason then or now for this, and it was a piece of stupid environmental vandalism, as with old-growth forest logging &c &c.

The problem was that the green argument seemed to be, ‘here is a piece of wilderness that we should preserve (using the economic surplus from our other activities)’, instead of ‘let’s run society sustainably so that no-one would ever contemplate such ridiculous hydro schemes, and so that every part of the environment, not such the pretty bits, is respected’.

Specifically this type of green social democracy has not made the important realisation that, arguably, business already has, and which has been the constant theme of these posts: widespread growth as usual (material growth coupled with population growth) cannot continue. A good example of this is George Monbiot, a UK green writer, who has grasped the ecocidal trajectory of global society, but because he cannot recognise population as a problem, and a lower population as a solution, is forced into all sorts of strange cohabitations, such as recommending nuclear power.

Business wants to continue both of these types of growth for a smaller number of people, but what it will do with the superfluous bodies is difficult to tell, other than it won’t have regard for niceties such as human rights. I am convinced that the way forward is for a slower economic growth or a steady state economy, with a declining population (declining by consent rather than coercion). The legacy of social democracy can show us how to create a society where the difficulty of transition to sustainability is shared equally, and where it is managed rationally by democratic institutions. However, social democracy as such, including green social social democracy, is a historical relic.

Next week: practical political action

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Grumble 15: Anatomy of Liberalism

Last week I talked about different political positions in modernity simply being a reflection of positions along the spectrum from dull and unthinking to active and thinking, so we have:

dull and unthinking modernistic thinking
slightly less dull and unthinking modernistic thinking
Social Democracy/Green
active and thinking modernistic thinking

[If you were to ask me where my own thinking was I would say that I am trying to think praeter-modernistically, and that few people think this way at present. However, if more people did then a new ideology would begin to form and people would all be clumped at the conservative end, holding tight to the new tenets of belief the system seemed to offer. Only with time would people begin to expand theorising and think more flexibly about the new system. And so, if anyone should ever read this in the future, in the world of praeter-modernity, this is how I excuse my dull and clunky thought in the new mode].

As can be seen from the table above Liberalism is, as it were, squeezed between conservatism and social democracy and so really, to my way of thinking, hardly exists any more. It heyday was in the C19 when politicians and thinkers descended from the C18 Radicals formed a movement that united the middle-classes and the more prosperous workers against the vested interests of the land-owing aristocracy (this is in Britain and Europe in various different versions, in the US politics has always been less about actual political interests and more about demagogy and populism).

Liberals believed in Free Trade, in freeing people from restrictions and allowing people to fulfil their potential unhindered by regulation or out-moded social forms. A representative figure was William Gladstone (1809–1898), four times Prime Minister of Britain, who fought vigorously for various causes that we can still sympathise with: trying to sort out the legacy of Britain’s unconscionable rule in Ireland, expanding the franchise, introducing the secret ballot, lessening discrimination against people who were not Anglicans, an ethical foreign policy, and opposition to the unprincipled populist imperialism practised by the Conservative Party of the day.

But in the C20 the Liberal Party in Britain was squeezed between the Conservative Party and the new Labour Party, which was more active in seeking to improve the conditions of workers. The Liberal Party declined into a third party and what will probably be the death of this once noble entity was foreshadowed in 2010, when the Liberals entered into a coalition with their former enemies the Conservatives.

The reason for this decline is that once Gladstonian type reforms are achieved, then nothing really distinguishes liberals and conservatives; conservatives want nothing to change, and Liberals, despite a theoretical commitment to equality, are reluctant to make big sweeping changes to social institutions in order to try to bring about a real ‘level playing field’, which is the expressed wish of social democrats. Really Gladstonian Liberalism had its moment in history as European societies were moving out of an era of domination by aristocratic and land-owning wealth, but could later achieve nothing in the face of their new masters: industrial and banking interests.
As these blogs have pointed out before ‘social mobility’ is an illusion consisting of two separate processes:
  1. really talented people rising from the working classes to a higher social status as they always have (most people stay where they were born in the social hierarchy);
  2. economic growth making everyone better off.
Once Liberalism had achieved its goal of deregulation in order to promote point 2, then no Liberal was going to countenance the radical policies that would result in ‘social flattening’ (which is what we need, rather social mobility). But then, to be fair in practice most social democrats wouldn’t countenance these policies either.

There has been one final, ignoble, incarnation of Liberalism, namely ‘Neo-Liberalism’, the unwholesome fetishisation of free-markets and deregulation, often in alliance with conservatism, or as practised by nominally conservative parties (a good ideological example of this would be the Thatcher Conservative government in Britain 1979-1991 (and later under another PM)). The problem with this is that markets are only efficient in their own terms, obviously they not truly efficient, because the end result of shipping garlic from Mexico to Australia and other enormities is a world moving even faster into the ecological end-game. Lord Stern, in his report to the UK Parliament on anthropogenic global warming described AGW as the ‘greatest market-failure in history’. Actually he was wrong, the greatest market failure is human depredations on the environment around and above the sustainability limit, of which AGW is merely a part.

In Australia the full drama of Liberalism was never played out because other issues (Federation, Protectionism/Free-Trade, Empire loyalty &c) obscured it and because the Labor Party emerged to divide the political landscape with various conservative elements. The fact that the official conservative party in Australian politics is called the Liberal Party is in fact simply a relic of the dishonesty of Robert Menzies, who, when he founded the Party in the 1940s, didn’t want to call it ‘nationalist’ or ‘conservative’, but wanted an anodyne name under which to gather votes from non-Labor-inclined voters in towns (in the bush the Country Party was the conservative force). There was in fact very little that that has been liberal about the Liberal Party of Australia in its sad history.

In Australia at present there isn’t really a home for classic liberalism, as arguably both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are parties consisting of an alliance of conservatives and neo-liberals (the Labor Party may have a few lonely social democrats). This is paralleled in other anglo-saxon countries, for example in Britain the Conservatives and ‘New Labour’, in Canada the Conservatives and the Liberals, and in the US the Republicans and the Democrats are two-party dictatorships of this sort. Indeed it is questionable whether respectable liberalism (the sort of liberalism you could introduce to your mother without frightening her) exists at all now. Liberalism had its moment, it performed certain tasks for capital, and then was discarded.

Next Week: Anatomy of Social Democracy

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Grumble 14: Anatomy of Conservatism

Last week I wrote about ideologies, and following on from that I want to argue that that conservatism (and any almost any other political position) isn’t so much an actual set of beliefs, independently arrived at, so much as simply a function of belonging to an ideology.

If you belong to a society you tend to follow its ideology, people who don’t are ‘dealt with’. To not belong means being an outlaw, or some someone whose ideas and actions are simply ignored because they can’t be fitted into any pigeon-hole. Ideologies are widespread features of human societies, a shorthand way of stating the agreed beliefs of society so everyone is on the same page. In themselves they can be either good (guiding societies to sustainable and sustained existence) or bad (modernity and others).

Conservatives are people who follow the official ideology very closely and blindly and define themselves by this identification. Slightly removed from this are liberals or progressives who accept the ideology, but want to quibble about the terms and think that these should be modified to slightly different outcomes. This is fine because ideologies are not monolithic, in mediaeval China or Korea, for example, there were lively debates as to what Confucianism should mean, similarly with Communism within Communist societies in the C20.

Next come social democrats who believe that society has to be actively modified towards a certain aims, though these are still compatible with the ideology. Here we are beginning to breath fresher air, and some of these people are actually thinking how modernity can turn away from the blind pursuit of growth at all costs towards ‘happiness’ and other measures of people’s well-being

Beyond this are a people who reject important points of the ideology and wish to modify it in ways which would change its fundamental character. But these are very few because to question certain shibboleths means not being taken seriously at all. So people who should be leading this re-evaluation of modernity, such a green politicians and thinkers, still timidly hide behind its goals, pretending that greater efficiency and use of renewable energy will bring humanity’s consumption below the sustainability threshold (they won’t on their own).

However, despite the fact that most of the present age’s brightest and best are well within the trammels of modernity it is still better to be at the progressive edge, because here people are a little more interested in ideas and information and change.

By contrast conservatism is nothing but a chain and ball tied to the leg of society and even the most modest change has to go through the most protracted and painful process in order to happen because of this.

Features of conservatism, besides this dead weight, resist-change-at-all-costs, include:

Religion: there is a great respect paid in some strains of conservatism to religion, but instead of this being an interest in religion for the sake of asking questions such as ‘how can we become better people?’, or ‘how can we make society a better one?’, it is for the purposes of saying ‘What “standards” are there that we can insist on to make society in the image of our imagination (ie limited)’, ‘How can we use these “standards” in order to interfere with, and govern, the lives of others?’.

Law and Order: Conservatism has great respect for law and order, but then so does everyone, after all, no-one wants a state of anarchy in society (even anarchists don’t). What conservatism particularly wants is for the law to favour the rich and powerful and for policing to be particularly intrusive for the poor. At the time of the Cronulla Riots in 2005 there were calls for the police to be given ‘more powers’, and I wondered at the time which part of rioting wasn’t already illegal. As it is the main burden on the lower courts is the over-officiousness of police in prosecutions of people for trivial offences who, if they are fined, can’t pay and continue to clog the legal system up by this inability.

However, the rare moments when the legal system does come in with judgements that favour the little people do create exquisite pain in the hearts of conservatives, and are all the more to be welcomed because of that.

Reverence for money/status/authority: conservatives love the establishment and believe that people who are rich and powerful are better, more honest, more hard-working and more moral than anyone else, despite all evidence to hand.

There is an interesting point to be made here: a recent article that I came across has argued that ‘The less control people feel over their own lives, the more they endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order.’ In this sense conservatives’ love of authority is due to the fact that a tiny minority of them are from the elites and naturally love themselves and their privileges. However, the rest are people who feel powerless and therefore attach themselves to authority.

Tax: Conservatives hate taxes because they don’t realise that taxes are what allows them to have roads instead of tracks, street lights instead of torches, hospitals instead of nothing and so forth. Conservatives love the idea of tax reductions, but strangely the world they call for, an over-policed society where most people are in prison, a highly militarised society with extensive armed forces, a society highly regulated so that no one can do anything that might be ‘offensive’ to conservative ‘standards’ &c &c, would be a one that would require enormous taxation to run.

Stupidity: Conservatives love stupidity and hate information. For a demonstration of this visit any climate change denialist web-site. The fact that the worship of ignorance tends to dim the knowledge of those icons of culture that constitute Western Civilization doesn’t worry them. Indeed, they may not be aware of this.

Racism/cultural supremacism: Conservatives are convinced that western culture is highest expression of humanity, though they would tend to bit toey about many of the people who make up western culture (French, Italians &c). Conservatives tend to be racists and ferociously anti-immigrant and anti-refugee. Instead of this instincts being thought of as warped expressions of a desire for a more sustainable population, these views are in fact simply inexcusable.

Fear: conservatives fear everything except fear itself: teenagers, women, homosexuals, foreigners, immigrants, other cultures, foreign food, foreign languages, change &c &c. Conservative mouthpieces, such as the gutter press and talk back radio, do everything they can to instill fear in the hearts of their listeners. The worst thing that any conservative can imagine is that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing, at their expense, and this fear is redoubled when the recipient may be a teenager, woman, homosexual, foreigner, immigrant…. &c &c

I imagine that the conservative end of all cultures looks pretty much like this, except that in most other cultures the apparatus for co-ordinating conservatism is not nearly as elaborate.

Next Week: Anatomy of Liberalism

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Another Interlude: The Future

This interlude is about what I think will happen in the future.

It is always dangerous to predict the future, and the number of foolish predications about the future are many.

However, it’s obvious things aren’t going to go swimmingly at the moment. As I keep on mentioning it is simply not possible for our global society to continue making the demands that we are making on the ecosystem. What makes this situation worse is that nowhere does it seem that anyone is arguing against the scale of our ecological demands; there are certain moves to, for example, conserve certain species and habitats and to reduce CO2 emissions, but these meet with huge resistance from vested interests, and in any case are likely to be unsuccessful unless in the context of the total human use of biological resources being considered and acted upon.

It’s also obvious that the way society has been developing for 30 years it’s unlikely that people will come together to deal with the ecological crisis, (as people did, say in 1940 in a time of crisis in Britain). It’s far more likely that society will fracture. In the later Roman Empire, in face of barbarian incursions, inflation and social unrest, the government split the previously legally equal class of Roman citizens into honestiores and humiliores. The former were the rich and they continued with all the legal privileges of Roman citizens such as lower taxes, the latter were the poor, and they lost previous privileges, were subject to higher taxes, and were no longer protected from torture if suspected of crimes.

For the last thirty years at least English-speaking western countries have been discriminating against poorer citizens and minorities and it is likely that this will continue. What I think will happen is that corporations and governments will continue to separate society in the rich and poor and control the poor, driving them into the ground.

If you add to this the consideration that people now are less used to making sacrifices, and have fewer useful skills than in the past, in my view is far more likely that people, instead of being in solidarity with all the whole of society, will side with the government/corporate world, hoping they can fit in the lifeboats and fend off those still struggling in the water.

The United States is much further advanced down the path of social disintegration than other English-speaking countries, and whenever I contemplate this I remember the joke in a Simpsons episode where the family returns to US from overseas and sees the sign ‘Welcome to the United States, 133 years without a civil war’.*

In a world of ecological collapse the only thing that can save corporate profits is the ultimate expedient of involuntary euthanasia. At the point at which the poor are no longer useful, and are a threat to corporate profits, then this will begin (already in the US, for example, people without medical insurance have a lower life expectancy than the average, which is a form of involuntary euthanasia). It would not surprise me if government or private labs in various parts of the world are already preparing highly-infectious and deadly viral agents, and of course, vaccinations against these for selected members of society.

These considerations raise the question, why can’t people see the problems that we face and begin to act on them? The reason is that people’s response to the world, although many of our deepest instincts and preferences point to a better way of life than we have at present, is never simply one-to-one. Because we are a social beings with a sense of history our response is mediated by:

  1. People around us
  2. How society has progressed up to now

And this gets solidified into an ideology.

Ideologies can be more or less sustainable, but equally can be very long-lasting and persist despite their disfunctionality. The later Roman Empire in the west and Ming and then Qing China are obvious examples of where the cultural prestige of the governing ideology meant that it could not be replaced, despite its shortcomings, so that the culture could respond to the challenges facing it and survive.

Our present ideology, which has graduated towards ecocide, began with mediaeval Christianity and its insistence of the separation of the individual and the world, and has only got worse since.

Its characteristics, as we have already discussed, are grounded in a belief in the capacity of people to develop despite ecological restraints. Unfortunately, the development of first coal then oil, with their seemingly magical quantities of useable energy, fed into the delusion of the special election that modernity seems to have been blessed with, and the belief that whatever problems the economic development of western society came across would be solved by similar magical gifts of nature.

Of course, the development of these fossil fuels came with a lot of concomitant problems, such as the persistence and amplification of the tendency of north-west Europe to over-population (unlike Aboriginal Australia, and other traditional societies, modernity has never secured abundance without an increasing population (Bill Gammage, The Greatest Estate on Earth)). The latest and most intractable problem that these have caused is, of course, anthropogenic global warming.

Perhaps one day we will all wake up thinking, less is better, no need to grow, no need for a growing population, but I doubt it. At the present there is hardly any support for such views and even parties such as the Greens (in Australia) are still talking about growth and prosperity as though such things were possible. (Ironically it is conservative opponents of the Greens who accuse them ‘wanting to shut down industry’ (‘the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light’)).

I think that, like Confucian ‘old China’, our world will persist in its delusions until it dies, and we with it.

* My respect for the prescience of The Simpsons was increased a few years ago; after season after season of this show satirising the stupid in American culture the Tea Party came along and embodied it perfectly.

Next Week: Grumble 14, an Anatomy of Conservatism