National sovereignty considered as a rule-based game

catalonia

The Cambridge dictionary defines sovereignty as “The power of a country to govern itself”. As opposed to what? the power of a country not to govern itself? Defined in this way, the idea of sovereignty is a tautology; power, nationhood and government are effectively a closed loop. This historical weight of sovereignty is the conundrum that lies at the heart of every movement for secession, call for regional autonomy or declaration of independence, that is, the authority to declare sovereignty is predicated on the prior existence of that sovereignty. That is also why secession tends to be such a fraught issue, because it is played out as a struggle over power as a zero-sum game: if I gain, you lose; if you gain, I lose. In the worst-case scenarios winning and losing are calibrated by acts of violence by a perpetrator on a victim, and the final tally is reckoned in standing armies, cowed populations and territory held.

The breakup of Yugoslavia was the exemplar of this worst-case scenario occurring in Europe within recent memory, though, further afield, the creation of South Sudan and the suppression of the Tamil independence movement were events notable for their savagery. Generally, democracies manage secessionist tendencies rather better, as negotiation and concession are built into their modus operandi. Yugoslavia, held together by the iron grip of Tito in the orbit of the Soviet Union, had never developed the democratic traditions as an independent nation to cope with the centrifugal forces operating on its constituent parts post-Tito. By comparison, Czechoslovakia, after a few brief years as a democratic entity could negotiate a peaceful divorce (assisted by statesmen of real stature to be sure). For all the wind and thunder churned out by the mass media, the referendum on Scottish independence and even the Brexit negotiations have been carried out peacefully and with a sense of decorum.

Given this, the present standoff between the Spanish government and the Catalan authorities is unique in recent European history and extraordinary for a modern democratic nation. Having no vested interest in the struggle being played out, my natural inclination is to side with the argument that in any sovereign democratic state there are laws governing the distribution of powers in society, which applies also to the powers ceded to regional authorities; within those laws negotiations can take place on the balance of that distribution. At a level more removed, there is a case for the negotiability of the laws themselves, if they are considered unjust, but this is a case for extreme constitutional discretion. Democracy is never just about voting or “the will of the people” – the war cry of demagogues – it is suffrage under the rule of law. Since the supreme court of Spain has effectively denied the legality of the Catalan referendum, it is within its constitutional right for the national government to suspend the region’s autonomy and dismiss its elected government (although it seems only the latter is being proposed).

We can usefully lean upon Kant’s categorical imperative in this and other questions of secession: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” If Mr Puigdemont were to achieve his aim of an independent Catalonia, would he countenance the further sundering of his independent state, given that the majority of Catalonia’s population did not vote for independence (the turnout was 43%) as the referendum was boycotted by pro-union parties? The question is purely rhetorical, of course, as secessionists are openly on a quest for sovereignty, i.e. power, nationhood and state governance, not for the enactment of abstract philosophical principles.

Yet, the dissembling and hypocrisy of secessionists is only one side in the game of sovereignty, in the political reaction to and decision-making about regional claims to power and the precedents thereby established. In a democracy, unlike an absolute monarchy, or socialist and fascist republics, in which power is centralised and total, the state has a duty to make judgements about the just and wise distribution of power. Thus, in the UK, calls for a Cornish state, the mutterings of the Wessex Independence Party* and the proclamations of the self-declared Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye can safely be ignored. Welsh and Scottish regional autonomy, however, cannot. Even though these identities are largely literary creations of English romantics, they exert a real influence on the imagination of populations in regions that are geographically, and historically distinct. There is a fine judgement about when and to what extent to concede authority when demands are made. Too little risks resentment; too much fuels the ambitions of the unscrupulous and sets a precedent for those with less justification. In the case of Catalonia, the intransigence of the Rajoy government fails to accommodate the need in any dynamic society to be responsive to the genuine aspirations of a significant segment of its population. Politics is less like chess, the rules of which have been codified and frozen for centuries; it is more like music in which the most interesting things happen in moving beyond the accepted conventions and structures.

The broad thrust of history seems to have been the absorption of lesser kingdoms and fiefdoms into sovereign nations. Since in most cases the boundaries of nation states are accidents of history – the shadow of battlefronts or the ruled lines of imperial surveyors – it seems a dogmatic article of faith to claim that the sovereign nation state is the immutable and ultimate legitimate player in international politics. A greater law of history, if there can be such a thing, is the chaotic nature of change and the unknowability of the future. However, as rational beings we can mitigate somewhat the turbulence of change through dialogue and negotiation. All people, as free individuals and as individuals identified by their various belonging, desire empowerment and the ownership that gives them over their lives, their community and their environment, something that the great centres of power ultimately need to recognise.

 

*Wessex was a medieval kingdom, resurrected as a fictional county in Thomas Hardy’s novels; I came up with the name for a projected satirical article, then checked it – the Party actually exists.

 

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The Korean Dilemma

Never formally concluded, the wound of the Korean war has been festering for over 60 years; but quietly sidelined by matters considered more geopolitically important, the two Koreas now threaten to be the ground zero of a nuclear Armageddon. The hateful totalitarian nightmare of North Korea has nothing worthwhile to offer the community of nations and its continuing existence in the modern world is an affront to all right-thinking people. Politics, however, is the art of the possible. Given the utter disregard the regime has for the suffering of its own people, there is no pressure that can be brought to bear that might divert it from its goal of acquiring full nuclear capability. The best policy under the circumstances is to let it acquire that capability.

The reality of nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has been one of the decisive factors in maintaining the balance of power globally and regionally since the end of the second world war. North Korea, reflecting the Kim dynasty running it, manifests an enormous inferiority-superiority complex, born of its disastrous economy and continual humanitarian crisis, while at the same time in the grip of a maniacal self-belief and belligerence towards its ideological enemies, which includes just about every nation in the world. Acquiring nuclear capability is the only strategy the regime has to bolster its self-esteem. Despite the impression portrayed in the Western media, it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un is actually mad, so the likelihood of him launching a first-strike nuclear warhead at the United States, South Korea or Japan is remote. He understands that it would be all over in that event. While I have some sympathy for Donald Trump’s response, which has certainly not been less effective than Obama’s aloof indifference, or ‘strategic patience’, I think that repeated warnings of the dire consequences of the North’s repeated violation of every norm of international relations devalues a currency that is already worthless, and makes America look impotent. Neither is diplomacy the answer. Every concession made to the Kim dynasty in return for compliance to nuclear non-proliferation has been a veil behind which they accelerated their nuclear programme. Sanctions also clearly have not and do not work, and, moreover, they rely on the wild-card of Chinese compliance, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, given their own strategic interests in the region and their fear of further destabilising the North.

What would a nuclear capable North Korea mean for the international community? There are both potential benefits and potential dangers. One possible benefit is that the North might stabilise geopolitically, having achieved a major strategic goal; its new-found self-esteem and confidence might induce it to be less belligerent to its neighbours as it could boast being amongst the minority of nuclear powers in the world. Moreover, it could have the confidence that its political system, though the most regressive amongst the world’s established states, would be safe from external threat. This could – even though unlikely – initiate a process of economic reform and a lightening of the burden on its people, following the course that China has followed since the death of Mao. The opposite could happen, of course, such is the unpredictability of the regime. It could use its nuclear threat to blackmail other countries in the region. It could become an exporter of nuclear technology to terrorist organisations such as Al Qaida and IS. Therefore, acceptance of a nuclear North Korea should be backed by siting nuclear weapons in every surrounding country which is presently non-nuclear – South Korea and Japan (China and Russia would object, but China particularly would be threatened by a nuclear Pyongyang), and imposing a blockade on all its shipping and air freight and a total travel embargo on all North Koreans. The nuclear balance should be permanent, the other measures dependent on the North meeting its obligations to coexist peacefully with its neighbours.

America, at the moment, is attempting to control the situation. This is impossible, given that there are no constraints that might plausibly be effective. It is possible, though, to manage it. The management of conflict, rather than the idealistic and impractical goal of eliminating it, is the only form of peace that is likely to be realised on the Korean peninsula in the foreseeable future.

Values and Identity

By Colin Turfus

We hear much about “values” and “identity” in discussions in the media these days. Often the debate about values is specifically around so-called “British values”; and the discussion about identity is often in the context of what is referred to as “identity politics.” The discourse on both these topics in my experience tends to be tedious and unilluminating, so I would like to try and consider these topics from a fresh perspective, in particular to look at their relationship and consider what light the one can shine on the other.

What Do I Mean by Values?

In relation to values, it is often assumed that, to be worthy of the name, they need to be universal or universalisable, i.e. worthy or capable of being upheld by all people, conceptually at all times (although this last idea is rather difficult to square with the commonly held perception that values somehow evolve as the human race becomes more “enlightened”). One of the consequences of this approach is that the concept of “British values” becomes almost an oxymoron, and we tend only to list amongst them things like “fairness,” “democracy” and “respect for the rule of law” which we would advocate that all people in all nations should adopt on the basis of their self-evident merit, arguing to that end along the lines of Kant’s categorical imperative.

Personally, I consider Kant’s philosophy to be unduly influential in our public debate, not least in his insistence on universalisability as a means of determining rules for what constitutes the good. While such arguments are helpful if we wish to compel others to adopt a mandated value perspective, or at least to behave and speak in public as if they did, much of what we really mean by “values” is not really universal at all; indeed it is often quite idiosyncratic and personal. Not only that, I would even propose that idiosyncratic value perspectives are crucial in bringing people together in social groupings and enable the members thereof to see themselves as distinct from members of other groupings on the basis not only of what Aristotle would refer to as the telos, or intrinsic purpose, of the group but also of the values to which this telos gives rise.

What I am arguing, therefore, is that we should think of values as inhabiting intersecting spheres, mirroring the fact that as multifaceted individuals we ourselves inhabit separate spheres in our lives, such as work, family, sports clubs, choirs, and discussion groups, each with its own telos and its own values, some of which may be universal and others of which may be highly exclusive. What I want to emphasise is that those which are universal are not necessarily higher or more important than others. Indeed they probably only offer a lowest common denominator. Who would wish it to be said as their epitaph only that they always did what was required of them? Or that they never strayed even once into political incorrectness? Surely a life replete with value has to go beyond the mundane and be infused with some idiosyncratic personal passion?

Problems with Conflicting Values

Another common misunderstanding—and this brings me on to the question of identity—is the opposite one: that when we feel the values of some particular group are antithetical to our own, there is some onus on us to show respect for the values of that group and indeed for whatever is the object of their valuing. To my mind that is not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense. The group and their values are different precisely because they are idiosyncratic, not universal. To demand that we respect the values and the valuing of another group is to suggest that we should adopt in some measure their idiosyncrasies. But in order to do so, we must at the same time relinquish hold on some of those associated with our own group (and identity). Thus we are required to pay homage to the values of groups to which we do not belong, and so to sublimate our own values. Presumably the other group is expected to reciprocate. As can be seen, if we were to take this process to its logical conclusion, our very identity, shaped as this is by the groups we belong to and the aims and activities we share with their members, will be undermined.

Much of such discussion about respect for other people’s values revolves around the idea of rights, which of course are inextricably linked with universalisability. Human rights law does indeed protect freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Consequently there is an onus on each of us to respect the rights of individuals and groups to hold and give expression to their values, but not necessarily to respect the values (or objects of valuing) themselves. Of course, if the expression of “values” is antithetical to universal rights held by others, or worse illegal, even the right of expression is curtailed.

In summary, “values” may by their nature and the role they play in our social lives divide us as much as they unite us, and to believe or wish otherwise is not just mistaken, but potentially dangerous as it may result in drawing groups into unnecessary conflict and undermining their ethos and the seminal role they play in underpinning civil society. Protecting spheres of value requires a judicious measure of separation to be maintained between social groupings. There can be such a thing as too much “unity”.

Problems with Multiple Identities?

As I have suggested above, the idiosyncratic values we hold to are a reflection of the social groupings we belong to (or used to) and vice versa. These give rise in a natural way to our identity, which will naturally be multi-faceted. This state of affairs and the recognition of the ultimate incommensurability of diverse value perspectives has given rise in the modern era to the postmodernist narrative, or perhaps I should say multiplicity of narratives. (How this squares with the purportedly necessary Kantian condition of universalisability of values has never to my knowledge been elucidated.) In accordance with this perspective, no individual or group has the right to prioritise their perspective or values over any other.

Well that’s the theory. The reality in the UK and indeed across Western society in general is of course what has become known as the multi-cultural society, whereby non-indigenous communities are encouraged to hold fast to their separate identity and culture, express their grievances against the majority community and demand preferential access to resources; and are often permitted, encouraged even, to flaunt the law, such as with so-called sanctuary cities in the US and in refugee camps at Sangatte. Thus we enter the realm of identity politics in accordance with which the basis of this entitlement to assert one’s identity or culture is a sense of victimhood, or the experience of prejudice or microaggression at the hands of the “majority” community. We have veritable industries now established in our universities manufacturing theories and devising ever more ways to fan the flames and identify new injustices which had hitherto gone unnoticed. How this can be reconciled with the idea of a society of universal shared values is hard to fathom.

But it does not even stop there. Under the postmodernist agenda new minority communities are all the time being identified, for example through the agency of gender dysphoria which has gone within a matter of years from being a pathological psychological state to being the major battleground in the crusade to evict inherited/traditional values from their erstwhile home at the centre of society. What was previously referred to as the LGBT community has become a veritable alphabet soup where soon we will be running out of letters to represent all the rainbow of gender perspectives which the theory (or, absent that, the ideology) seeks to accommodate. And don’t get me started on the haves versus the have-nots debate (where interestingly it appears uniquely to be the minority who are deemed to be the oppressors!).

Under this narrative, the authenticity of the perspective expressed is deemed to arise not from any coherent philosophical perspective or historical narrative but from the grievances which are evinced, so civilised discussion is barely possible, only capitulation lest one be seen as manifestly part of the problem and labelled as embodying this or that phobia or -ism.

Where Does This Leave Us?

This whole business seems to me to be a misuse of the idea of identity. From the perspective I outlined above, this should be about shared values within a community or social grouping, not shared grievances and enmities. Interestingly I would see the new revanchist nationalism evident in the US and Europe (it was rarely if ever absent anywhere else in the world, so is seldom remarked upon other than in Europe or North America) as a reaction against the perceived injustice of precisely this privileging of minority over majority interests. Unfortunately the manifestation of this tends all too often to be again through the expression of shared grievances and enmities, which is not really leading towards a resolution.

It would appear there is urgent need to put positive values back at the centre of the concept of identity and indeed of our moral/societal/political discourse.

The Limits of Tolerance

Attacks like the one we saw in the heart of London last week always set in motion a series of political spasms on the right and the left, the right decrying the lack of calling a spade a spade in the establishment media, in that the danger is posed not just by Islamist terrorism, or by fundamentalist Islam, but by Muslims in general who are here in too great numbers, the left by denouncing any questions or criticism directed to Islam or the customs and practices of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere as ‘Islamophobia’ and thereby beyond the pale and to be dismissed without consideration.

Beyond this predictable ruckus, the response of the country, the political classes and the media by and large have been measured and proportionate. But for the long term to preserve the peace and the arc of social development the nature and role of tolerance needs to be explored and buttressed with more considered arguments and perspectives than are normally encountered in political soundbites and the media.

This issue has become one of some urgency for democratic cultures which are under assault from two very different sources. One is the more obvious influx and settlement of cultures with a rapidly growing demographic profile – specifically, though not uniquely, Islam – which have little or no tradition of liberal democracy, have a generally low tolerance for dissent, and at their most extreme actively call for the abolition of secular institutions and the imposition of religious or other alien laws. The other is a hypertrophied form of tolerance ideology which has taken over large parts of the left, displacing the traditional championship of the working class with that of ethnic and lifestyle minorities, and threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and free speech, and thereby eroding the basis of real tolerance. Both these threats have been cited as important factors in the rise of populism.

Tolerance has long been touted as a particularly British virtue; however, all established democracies by their nature must have learned to value and to nurture it. A democratic culture cannot really be embedded in a nation unless people have made accommodation with fundamental difference of belief, outlook and lifestyle for the sake of a higher good – that is social peace and stability, which are fundamental conditions of prosperity. To underscore that point, it is only necessary to look at the lamentable state of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the institutions and practices of universal suffrage instituted by the Americans and their allies are permanently undermined by tribal affiliation and ethnic hatred based on religion, which reflects the broader conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. Throughout the region this hatred spills over into local and regional wars, mostly proxies for the major Islamic powers.

Clearly, then, tolerance is a good thing for society. But are there any limits to tolerance? The philosopher Karl Popper claimed that for the sake of tolerance it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. This perhaps establishes a logical benchmark without, however, taking us very far along the road of realistically understanding what tolerance is as a positive concept. This, however, has become the fundamental stance of British politicians in the post-9/11 era and time of mass immigration.  As the historian Eliane Glaser notes: “In recent years… the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here’” (Glaser, 2014).

The situation is made more complex by that other form of intolerant tolerance on the political left, which embraces multiculturalism and identity politics. This form eschews the term ‘tolerance’ altogether, preferring words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. This terminological difference is important for two reasons. One is that it separates these political standpoints from the older, religious context in which notions of tolerance developed in the UK, that is a specifically Christian context, and so frees them from the theological and moral baggage which that carries. Secondly, it is able to divest itself of the tone of disapproval implied by ‘tolerance’ and promote the virtues of acceptance, ‘embracing’ and even celebration.

Having, as it supposes, established an unassailable moral position, the advocates of multiculturalism and identity politics feel justified in compelling absolute conformity to its dictates and denouncing, with an endlessly extendable bastard lexicon, even the mildest criticism or deviation as forms of intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia , disphobia, and so on. This denunciation even extends to welcoming and genuinely embracing the customs and traditions of outsiders, as ‘cultural appropriation’. This latter, if nothing else, reveals the Machiavellian heart of its politics, which is to champion distinction and separation, to perpetuate and elevate the status of victimhood, and to fragment the normative sense of national cultural identity.

For the reasons outlined above, I find the notion of tolerance defined as the negation of intolerance unsatisfactory. To understand the nature and limits of tolerance we can do worse than start with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. For Aristotle every virtue lies on a midpoint between vices defined by paucity and excess; for instance, bravery between cowardice and foolhardiness, or generosity between meanness and extravagance.  Tolerance, then, can usefully be understood to lie between the extremes of hatred of the other – genuine intolerance – and licentious indulgence of that which is exotic or transgressive.

It is also necessary though to explore the meaning of tolerance from the inside. It is often – it has become – confused with approval, but this is certainly not what tolerance implies in its original meaning. One may strongly, even violently, disapprove of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, but suspend the impulse to coerce conformity, or even in extremis eradicate the irritant, for the sake of the greater good. It is a fact that the impulse to identify difference, which is the basis of all prejudice, suppression, oppression and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide, is unquenchable. Since this impulse cannot be eliminated individuals, communities and nations must learn and implement the practice of managing and controlling it. This is fundamentally what tolerance is.

Tolerance, though, does not exist in a vacuum, or without certain conditions. Interestingly, Japan, which is a stable democracy, one in which freedom of religion and political belief is institutionalised, is nevertheless not particularly tolerant of dissent at a societal level and a high premium is placed on conformity. Japan is almost an entirely monocultural society, whose religion is syncretistic, and has very low rates of immigration. This is definitely one route to stability, though it is increasingly rare in a highly mobile world; moreover, in the case of Japan this social stability is being maintained at the cost of economic stagnation and a moribund society. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from Japan: conformity to certain cultural values seems to be entirely compatible with tolerance of idiosyncrasy in other areas of life – indeed, there is a rich tradition of eccentricity in Japan, as there is in Britain, though it is rarely commented upon – and a case can be made that such conformity may be one of the important conditions of tolerance.

In this regard, it is sometimes said that Britain – particularly England – lacks a visible national culture to which we cleave, which is not true, although we do not have the overtly vibrant and colourful panoply of costume, dance, food and music that others share. However, Britain does have a democratic culture which goes much deeper than the periodic ritual of voting in elections, which even autocratic regimes mimic in an attempt to legitimise their uninterrupted rule. This culture rests on three largely invisible pillars of our culture which uphold our democratic way of life, and the democracies which have derived from the British tradition: the scientific method, individual liberty and the rule of law. In fact, these are not uniquely or characteristically British (although Britain was, by historical happenstance, an important crucible in their development), but requirements for anything that pretends to being a universal culture. They are also the foundational principles around which a debate about tolerance and intolerance can be drawn up.

Around these three principles I would say, there is absolutely no discussion and they should be the bedrock of our educational system and social institutions without compromise. However, while affirming those principles absolutely, that does not mean that there is no movement within them. Participation within the life of society means contributing to the actual content that they embody, ensuring the continual development of the society and its culture.

For example, there is a clear distinction between the scientific method and scientific knowledge. The content of scientific knowledge is continually updated based on research, and even longstanding and respected theories are challenged and overturned. There is no sacred knowledge in science. However, the scientific method is fundamental to the acquisition of valid knowledge. Although there are philosophical debates about the exact nature of the scientific method, there is no dispute about the fundamental role of theory and evidence, developed and applied with a rigour concomitant with the character of the research in question.

Similarly, we uphold the principle of the rule of law, which means that no one, however privileged, wealthy, famous or powerful, is above the law or beyond its reach. Yet, clearly the law evolves over time to reflect the changing complexion of society, its priorities and developments brought about by new technologies and changing demography, to update the concept of justice. While never perfect, there is a system of checks and balances in place, which means that the law attempts to serve the common good rather than the interests of vocal minorities. Clearly injustices occur, and sometimes these are systemic, but the system is self-correcting over the long term.

Democratic societies are by their nature highly individualistic. Contrary to the criticisms of some collectivist cultures, this does not mean that they are selfish and hedonistic; in fact, democratic societies are marked by a highly developed spirituality and morality in which respect is conferred to the individual soul, which is considered free and responsible. It is this concept, though, which is continually under attack from the enemies of democracy, who believe we must act and even think in accordance with their precepts, whether they be religious or political. For example, a lot of religious and political capital – on both left and right – has been invested in the hijab, as symbol of women’s oppression or expression of religious freedom. To this I would only comment that if designers were to make the hijab a fashion choice freely and widely adopted by British women based on beauty, style and convenience, I cannot see how anyone could reasonably object.

What should we do in the face of intolerance, of the kind that believes that a life not dedicated to their ideology is a life of no value, such as we saw demonstrated last week on Westminster Bridge? We should do as we have done: review our security arrangements and carry on as normal. Apply the law rigorously in the prosecution of illegal action. We should continue to apply our scientific reason to illuminate the dark areas of the soul in which irrational superstition can fester. Above all we should carefully apply the principle of individual liberty. Individuals are free and responsible for their actions, not their family, community, religion or ethic grouping. Even if all terrorists were Muslims, which is not the case, this does not carry the implication that all Muslims are terrorists. To reach that false inference is not just a breach of logic, but does violence to our democratic culture and its belief in individual liberty.

Are there limits to tolerance? Fundamentally, I would say no, as tolerance defines the sort of society we would like to continue to live in. Tolerance does not mean we agree and it does not mean we approve; but it does mean that we keep our disagreement, dislike or disgust of the other in check for the greater good of peace and stability in society. It is the function of the law, not my conscience, to determine where acts against the common good have been committed and to prosecute such acts. I also have my prejudices and my ignorance, which it is the role of evidence-based inquiry and rational discourse to dispel. But no law should compel me to love my neighbour, respect his beliefs or approve his lifestyle. These may come through engagement with individuals from diverse backgrounds, which any rational education should encourage us to do, but compulsion is toxic to the very concept and social realisation of tolerance.

 

Reference

Eliane Glaser, ‘Tolerance and Intolerance’, History Today Volume 64 Issue 2, February 2014.

 

 

 

 

Reflections on the Nature of Truth in a Post-Relativist Age

If a man says that there is no such a thing as truth, you should take him at his word and not believe him. Roger Scruton

In classical times there were considered to be three absolute values: truth, beauty and goodness, which were considered to be rooted in the unbroken order of things, the relationship of mankind to the cosmos and the gods. In the period of modernity a spirit of relativism pervaded and these values were no longer considered to be absolute. Hume and the sceptical tradition epitomised by Moore’s Principia Ethica have considered the good to be merely the preference of the individual, and aesthetic relativism beauty to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’. However, recent scientific work on altruism and perception suggest that there are objective correlates of subjective feelings of value, in these cases actions and structural disposition. In the case of truth, the feeling of ‘trueness’ should be matched to an objective correlate, which in common with the philosophical tradition I take to be actual existence.

It could be said that our relationship to truth has changed over time. In a simpler age there were the truths of religion and there were the truths of the voices of authority, often those who transmitted the sacred words or who represented divinity on earth, such as kings and emperors. With the Reformation and the Enlightenment those truths began to lose their grip on the imagination of greater numbers and be displaced by the secular truths of science and the provincial voices of a community of experts in various fields such as law, politics and economics. It may be that in our time, under the twin influences of postmodern philosophy, with its radical de-centring of subjectivity and deconstruction of all forms of authority, and the technology of the information society, exemplified by the Internet, we are entering a post-relativist age, one not characterised by the tolerance and compromise fostered by recognising the limitations of knowledge in a relativistic milieu, but one in which, paradoxically, extravagant claims to truth are made in a nihilistic one.

It might be surprising that the notion of truth is still taken seriously, many believing it to have been displaced by a thoroughgoing relativism with regards to omniscient claims. But one of the long-recognised problems of relativism is that it logically undercuts its own suppositions: it cannot be a true statement that there is no such thing as truth. Perhaps the purveyors of relativism have something more specific in mind, the non-existence of ‘Truth’ as an absolute, allied to moral absolutism, and though they might not be entirely out of the woods, this is a known category: that of the assertions of theology, sovereignty and metaphysics. We have become inured to the debunking of authority in these fields. What might be less well known is that science has also lost its privileged place as a purveyor of truth; scientific theories are now generally considered to be useful creations rather than discoveries of the iron laws of nature. It is only in logic and in mathematics that the notion of truth remains largely intact, although even here outriggers of postmodernism, such as feminist theory and ‘queer’ theory have been transvaluating rational thought’s central tenets into the will to dominate and deploying the gambit of victimisation.

It is, though, in the field of politics that the most obvious manifestations of post-relativism are found: the assumption of, and attribution of, bad faith to whatever and whoever takes a different perspective, regardless of the evidence; the concoction of ‘alternative facts’ and the accusation of ‘fake news’ in a zero-sum game in which the rules of civilised discourse and the arduous responsibility of arriving at something like the truth in a complex social world have been laid aside; and the grandstanding assumption of indubitable infallibility based for the most part not on knowledge and experience but on tenuous sources within cyberspace. Today, many people seem content to outsource their thinking and behaviour to the social media corporations. In a more scripturally literate past this was known as building your house on sand.

While not the source of the problem, it does not help that current theories of truth within philosophy are based on very narrow criteria. The two prevailing models of truth are the correspondence theory of truth, in which statements made about reality correspond to the facts as they are known and the coherence theory of truth, in which statements have logical coherence with other validated propositions. The correspondence theory of truth goes back to Aristotle but has had modern exponents in Russell and Austin. Russell, for example, stated that for a statement to be true every linguistic element in the statement, such as the relationship between a subject and object must correspond to a factual reality. While commonsensical for many mundane, concrete descriptions, this would seem inadequate for any state of affairs in which interpretation is called for; for example, how would one determine that even the simple judgement that a particular road was a long road was objectively true?

A sister theory of correspondence theory is Tarski’s semantic theory of truth, which states that a proposition of the form /“snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white/, the two occurrences of the phrase belonging to the primary language and metalanguage respectively. This establishes the condition of whether a ‘true’ or ‘false’ truth value can be attributed to a statement cast as a tautology, but not whether the referent of the statement is true or not. A parallel example would be the statement /“kryptonite is green” is true if and only if kryptonite is green/. The conditions for attributing a truth value are the same, but the referents have a different ontological status. Since kryptonite does not exist outside of the imaginary world of the Superman comics, kryptonite is neither green nor any other colour. So although this would satisfy Tarski’s conditions for attributing a false truth value to the statement, it seems to me that that would not be evaluated on a par with a statement such as “sulphur is blue” in which an attributive error, rather than a category error, had been committed.

Both these versions of correspondence, to my mind, suffer the same limitations. The first is that they limit themselves to so-called real (i.e. physical) objects, whereas many of the things that language speaks of are non-physical, abstract or imaginary. The problem is their positivistic notion of existence, the reduction of reality to basic fundamentals over which they claim there is no dispute. However, there is no existence which is not problematic. Take, for instance, the proposition that the earth is round and orbits the sun. It was once consider heretical to make public such a belief.  Today the denial of either of these accepted facts is considered a mark of eccentricity or perversity. But how has the proposition “the earth is round and orbits the sun” been established as true*, since very few have had the opportunity to experience this directly? It is on the basis of an established intellectual tradition that the word has percolated down even to the least intellectual through school textbooks and popular culture. Every piece of so-called evidence could have an alternative explanation. We take it in good faith that the experts who assert that it is so have the means to evaluate the evidence and the theory that binds the evidence into a coherent explanation as fundamentally sound. For all that, the emergence of the internet has spawned and hosts a multiplicity of flat-earth conspiracy theorist websites and other alternate ways of seeing reality, from committed ufologists to millenialist movements and crackpot therapeutics, that have eroded faith in reason and empirical evidence among much of the public.

“The world is all that is the case”, according to Wittgenstein at the opening of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, according to which whatever is true must be an existing object or an existing state of affairs, such that stating Y of X must be true if X exists and Y is a quality that pertains to X. However, in order to address the divergence between ordinary language and the range of objects or events found in the phenomenal world of human experience, it is necessary to part company with positivism and its insistence on ‘atomic facts’ and take a phenomenological position that whatsoever we speak of has a proper mode of existence. In other words it is necessary to expand the range of fundamental ontology, over which truth values can be asserted, to include at least social ontology and the ontology of the psyche. It seems to me that there are six categories of knowledge to which the label ‘truth’ can be attached, though I am not dogmatically committed to this: the truth that nature, great art and great acts reveal to us; the truths contained in sacred texts and institutions; authority, the mystique surrounding it and its pronouncements; matters of fact encountered in the everyday; theories, such as those of science, the humanities and philosophy; and tautologies, as in mathematics and logic. The only thing that binds these together is the requirement that their ‘truth’ be conceived as related to a mode of existence. That is to say, that nothing can be said to be true unless it is held to exist in some manner.

This brings me to the second limitation of these theories: that they do not establish the conditions upon which correspondence between a statement and the actual state of affairs described can be said to hold or not to hold, other than to affirm or deny that they do. In fact, the conditions of truth for an object or state of affairs can be said to be met when they are defined in a dialectic of conceptualisation and evaluation, that is, their mode of existence is both conceptualised and incorporating – even implicitly – a method by which the assertion of existence can be judged. For example, if a unicorn were to be defined as a horned horse, then any statement that contained a reference to unicorns, such as “I encountered a unicorn in the forest” would be easily refuted as no such creatures exist; however, if it were defined as a mythical horned horse, then the same statement would be taken allegorically or dramatically. Less obviously, we do this with everyday objects. How would one know that a particular object was a cup unless we had imbibed a concept of a cup that was continually validated in our everyday experience? Contrast this, then, with the bafflement or indifference with which we encounter unfamiliar objects for which we have no conception or understanding of their use.

The conflict between religion and science is largely about conflicting ideas of truth and the misapprehension from both sides of the nature of the truths that they are promoting. A less restrictive ontology could broaden our conception of what we consider part of the real. A case could even be made for the existence of God as an object of faith that can only be apprehended through a life of faith. However, both religion (at least of the more fundamentalist varieties) and science (allied to atheistic fundamentalism) believe that religion is advocating truths that are evidentially demonstrable, as an alternative or equivalent to science, for example about the origin of the universe or the origin of life. But this was not the view of truth that was promulgated by classical religion, such as the theologies of Augustine or Averroes (Ibn Rushd), nor indeed by the more open-minded modern commentators. The palaeontologist and evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould has spoken of the ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of science and religion, in which both address the same realities from different perspectives. Simply put, we could say that science addresses the facts of reality through theory and data and religion addresses the meaning of reality through stories and metaphor. Even though atheists experience the awe-inspiring nature of cosmic reality, they are hampered in expressing this in the reductive language of science and frequently take refuge in the spiritual language of parable and metaphor.

Of course, definitions are not always attached to statements, nor should they necessarily be, as this would be an imposition on the beauty and simplicity of language. Most statements are understood in context anyway. This favours a coherence theory of truth in which statements are anchored in others which are verifiable, though I have argued that we need a broader range of the conditions in which verification takes place. I think one of the great dangers of the post-relativist age of information overload and reductive horizons is that we are losing the ability to contextualise the utterances of those with whom we may not share the same outlook in a broader framework of accommodation, and instead are tempted to defend our small islands of privileged truth in bouts of hyperbolic rage.

*Or approximately true, as the earth is flattened at the poles, and it is more accurate to say the earth and sun revolve around a common axis.

Adam Smith and the Rationality of Self-Interest

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Since Adam Smith the prevailing view in economics has been that the free market operates through a principle of rational self-interest. Much as Darwin later identified the underlying mechanism for the variety and dynamism of nature operating at the individual level, so Smith atomised the creation of wealth to the individual’s self-interest: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. The notion of rational self-interest, though, needs to be subject itself to rational scrutiny, as it may contain assumptions about human nature which may limit the idea of the type of society which is possible.

Taking Smith’s own assertion at face value, what is it that constitutes the traders’ “own interest”? Clearly, making a living for themselves, which means the buying and selling of goods to and from others, the point being that trade presupposes the existence of others going about their business. Although we can safely assume that Smith had in mind an economy of more than three or four persons, and sustained by more than meat, beer and bread, pleasurable and sufficient as that may sound to some, for the purpose of this thought experiment let us assume a minimal economic model of four players, the butcher, the brewer, the baker and “I” representing the expectant diner. In such a model, it seems clear that whatever the self-interest of each individual is, it cannot be considered in isolation, but only in relation to the self-interest of others. The three traders and “I” rely on each other and can only participate in the market if each is solvent. Therefore, logically, trade in this state is not a zero-sum game, but depends on a certain level of parity, in which only incremental competitive gains are allowed.

Now, suppose that one of the traders defects from this cooperative model in order to gain an economic advantage over the other two. This could be due to simple greed, or it could be due to a fear that one of the others will jump first. In game theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with the logical outcomes of people behaving rationally under given conditions, this is known as the prisoners’ dilemma, based on a specific example, but generally states that when a player has more to gain individually by cheating than by cooperating with a partner, but more to gain by cooperating with a partner than by them both cheating, they will nevertheless both end up cheating and so end up with the worst result. The reasoning runs as follows: if I cheat I will end up with the best result (even though the other person will end up with little or nothing); I would like to cooperate, but if I can think of cheating so can my partner, and if my partner cheats I will end up with little or nothing; therefore, it is in my interest to cheat. The logical result of rational self-interest is that both partners cheat and end up with less than if they cooperated.

Suppose that the baker, in order to gain a competitive advantage over the butcher and the brewer, starts selling meat and beer, judging that “I” the customer will flock to his store for all my necessities; if he succeeds and drives the butcher and baker out of business, he will have gained all my custom and “I” will have gained a more convenient shop. On the downside the baker will have to diversify the business, which will require more work and may result in a loss of edge in the former area of expertise, opening the potential for targeted competition. The baker will also have lost two important suppliers and customers, and potentially made two enemies. From “my” perspective, disregarding the loss of esteem “I” may have had for the baker (for the moment), this places me in a more vulnerable position economically as, if the baker were to go out of business, “I” would have nowhere to buy my victuals.

There is another scenario: in this one the brewer and the butcher do not fold but respond to the baker by similarly diversifying, thus depriving the baker of any advantage gained by jumping first. They gain no advantage over the former cooperative scenario and take on the disadvantages that the baker had previously assumed; there is not even the prospect of my undivided custom. However, there is a payoff if the brewer, butcher and “I” conspire to deprive the baker of trade. Some experiments have looked at the relationship between our sense of fairness and spite. They turn on adding a new element to the prisoners’ dilemma. If the option for the exploited to pay for the punishment of those who defect is added the outcome is very different. Despite the exploited losing even more, they experience satisfaction at seeing the exploiters punished. Moreover, in future rounds group cooperation is far more common.

In real economies, as opposed to simplified models or experiments, there is a huge capacity to absorb the effects of defection, to the extent that the both perpetrators and victims might imagine that there are no consequences for the defector, hence no justice. This capacity is not unlimited, however, and the timescales for restitution – at least for exposure – are growing shorter in this increasingly connected world. Humans are highly attuned to fairness or the lack of fairness in a situation. This may be one of the reasons for the continuing appeal of socialism; it responds at a deeply atavistic level to the inherent injustice of so much of the world’s economic poverty and institutionalises grievance against those who are seen as unjustly favoured (such as bankers in the current climate). The same is probably true of the wave of populism sweeping the developed economies which harness, similarly through partial truths and vicarious appropriation, the dispossessed’s resentment against the winners from globalisation.

Keynes was one of the few economists who attempted to integrate human irrational impulses into his economic theory. Mostly, though, they have been ignored in the pursuit of pure rationality, exemplified by the extreme mathematization of orthodox economics. Rational self-interest as a real-world strategy does not exist in a solipsistic vacuum, however, but must take account of human feelings and sociality, even absorbing short-term disadvantages for longer-term benefits. Most economists despair at the irrationality of voters who turn their backs on the benefits of the free market, specifically global free trade, in favour of the planned economies of socialism or the protectionist policies of the right wing populists. In light of the scenarios considered, though, this does not necessarily violate the principle of rational self-interest, but it reveals that in open societies the concept is more complex and subtle than often thought. Swings in political culture, while manifesting irrational tendencies, may from a broader perspective be reinforcing economic rationality by reining in the irrational outcomes of defection from cooperation, that defection being entailed by supposedly rational objectives.

 It is a fact that free trade has had a beneficial effect on a global level by bringing millions out of poverty, but also that in doing so it has had a devastating effect on traditional jobs and communities in the developed world, not to mention the effect it is also having on the environment. It is little comfort to be told the truth midway through life that one must retrain for a new career in the digital economy because your job has been exported and be prepared to uproot oneself, family and community. These people vote; and in line with rational self-interest they will, in sufficient numbers, vote for those who promise an end to such deprivation, for this is less about declining standards than about economic survival. Among these voters there are true believers; yet probably many more vote with suspended disbelief to punish those in power and the rich even at the cost of punishing themselves. When the euphoria of populism dies down and the reality of broken promises sets in, there will be a reaction and hopefully this will see movement towards a more cooperative economic culture, in which social concerns are integrated into the market ethos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the point of the Left? A dispassionate assessment of its virtues and vices

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After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s there was a brief window in which it was predicted that the forces of democracy and the free market had triumphed and leftist and socialist parties would thereafter only wither away. The view from the present is of a very different political landscape, with a resurgence of interest in leftist politics, socialist parties coming to power in Europe and South America, and even a candidate of the left (by American standards) a strong contender in the Democratic primaries. Yet the aetiology of the left seems to be well understood and to flow along only three routes: ideological purity and marginalisation; ‘selling out’ to conservative forces; or – worst case scenario – taking power and creating a totalitarian failed state. This raises the question, most interestingly from an evolutionary perspective, of what the left is for. This is not a rhetorical question, for something so persistent in modernity cannot simply be dismissed.

The socialist parties across Europe are generally conflicted internally between the first two routes. In the UK the political left seems to be in disarray, with the Labour party seemingly in a death struggle between the moderate left and the hard left, with the majority of its MPs out of step with their leader. President Hollande of France came to power on a platform of radical socialist policies, which have been abandoned in the interests of financial realism. Syriza in Greece swept into power with a popular anti-austerity message, only to cave in to the EU’s conditions for a financial rescue package, which has naturally caused a backlash against the government. Only Tony Blair seemed to manage for a few years the intricate balancing trick of allying socialist ideals with financial acumen; however, he managed both to betray the left over Iraq and empty the coffers of government. Even the Scandinavian social democratic model, widely admired but rarely achieved outside the particular cultural and demographic conditions to be found there, has withered in the new economic reality.

China is the case par excellence of a revolutionary party that abandoned socialism for market economics, and accepted some measure of social liberalism, although has shown no sign until now of allowing political freedom. Cuba, though more tentatively, appears to be treading the same path. Interestingly, these countries do not generally seem to have attracted the opprobrium of the left for having abandoned the path of pure socialism. Perhaps having been the emblems of radical chic and poverty tourism for so long before their transition, they had become unspoken embarrassments to the ideologically pure. It raises the question though of whether a country like China even belongs to the ‘left’ anymore, despite being run by a communist party. Russia is also an interesting case study. The communist utopia of radical intellectual leftists throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, only some of whom were deflected from their idolatry when the reality of Stalin’s purges became evident, it sank slowly into being a corrupt, inegalitarian, illiberal, though basically functioning state kept afloat by territorial expansion and proxy wars, until Afghanistan. Then after a few brief years of social, economic and political liberalisation it resumed its centuries-old characteristic of being under authoritarian rule. Given the resurgence of nostalgia there for the Soviet era, it is interesting to speculate at which point it ceased to be the darling of the left and instead began to be be name-checked by the far right.

Meanwhile, socialism continues to exert its hypnotic fascination upon a good part of the globe, with the fatal attraction to its ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, segueing unerringly into economic dysfunction, subversion of democratic checks and balances and resistance to reform when in power, compounded by the intellectual impermeability of its acolytes and apologists to reasoned criticism. We need look no further than Zimbabwe and Venezuela to see all these criteria in play. Zimbabwe, under the aegis of the nonagenarian national liberation hero Robert Mugabe, has played out the theatre of socialist national decline since independence, only briefly interrupted when genuine democrats managed to loosen his arthritic grip on the tiller, due to a brief, incautious dalliance with relatively free and fair elections. In Venezuela things have, if possible, moved more deeply and more quickly, from reasonable stability and sufficiency (though one should not overstate the case here; poverty was endemic in the rural areas and among the indigenous Indian population) to economic catastrophe. It does not help that their real head of state, Hugo Chavez, is actually dead, and his anointed successor’s only demonstrable qualities stubborn adhesion to power and ideological rigidity. But even these sorry cases are still only at the midway point on the road to the holocausts of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

Given the evidence of history and the present of failure of epic proportions at every level, it is remarkable that socialism continues to exert such a powerful pull on the imagination of so many, and is a phenomenon which begs an explanation. Let me start with the cynical view, propounded by the conservatively-minded, which is that socialism tends to attract those who are politically naïve, the evidence being that it is disproportionately attractive to the young and people like celebrities. There is certainly a superficial plausibility to this; a reasonable parallel would be with those who are attracted to radical Islam, who tend to be young, religiously naïve or non-practicing Muslims. However, if the argument is turned around, it is not obvious that the politically sophisticated are to be found crowding the political right, and the same charge, of naivety, could be levelled at those who are drawn into right wing politics, particularly of the far right nationalist variety.

A more objective, scientifically-rooted perspective is that our political affiliations, like much else about us, is determined genetically. This seems more plausible, after all personality and temperament, which do have a strong genetic component, play a significant part in the type of worldview we develop. This view also correlates with data from the research of Jonathan Haidt that indicates there are five or six fundamental values in a ‘moral matrix’ which are shared across all cultures, but that liberals typically emphasise a smaller range of fundamental social values than conservatives, being disproportionately committed to care and fairness, but less so to other values such as freedom, loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity, an effect that is more marked the more liberal a person considers themselves to be. The lack of balance in values may help to understand the epic failures of socialism in power, and perhaps also why conservative parties tend to be electorally more successful over the long term.

Haidt’s view is that whatever our political inclinations, it cannot be a bad thing to be more self-aware and that as a society we need to engage more in dialogue, although current trends suggest we are becoming more entrenched in our views, aided by the self-selecting and bias-reinforcing tendencies of the internet. I suspect that the desirability of dialogue is itself something of a liberal predilection. Moreover, dialogue almost never changes minds. Rather, familiarity with different perspectives fosters a degree of empathy and tolerance for the other, in other words contributes to shared meta-values. From this lofty perspective it is possible to discern that the left does indeed contribute to human social evolution:

  • First, socialism can be considered the modern political manifestation of the age old and timeless human sense that the focus on money is not only immoral but fundamentally damaging to the cohesion of society. In a recent article Marian Tupy has argued that there is a pedigree of thought, stretching from homer and Plato through medieval Catholic theology to Martin Luther and Thomas More, which argues that mercantilism is fundamentally inimical to human life. This tradition is, therefore, embedded in western thought and the history of major institutions. It underlies the contemporary critique of corporate greed that has been adopted across the political spectrum.
  • Secondly, it manifests and embodies the more caring and compassionate side of human nature in continuity with the Christian tradition exemplified by Jesus’ forgiveness of sinners and care for the poor and marginalised, sometimes explicitly religious, but more commonly now through humanistic ideals. To grace this idea with a few examples: the changed attitudes towards and improved social circumstances of children, animals, the disabled, and homosexuals.
  • Thirdly, liberals are more open to new ideas, particularly social ideas and trends, than conservatives. Conservatives by their very nature, tend to be content with the status quo, not necessarily because they are beneficiaries of the existing conditions, but because they are averse to change. From the perspective of human social evolution it makes sense to have adaptability as well as stability, and liberal attitudes allow for a greater degree of social experimentation. Although many of these ideas turn out to be culs-de-sac, some are adopted into the social mainstream, such as many of the changes to education.
  • Fourthly, the militancy and obstreperous nature of much of the left means that ideas that might have simply been passing trends remain in the collective consciousness long enough to be adopted more widely, which contrasts with the generally more complacent attitudes of the right. Environmental concern has largely been driven by the left, as has concern with racism, both unfinished campaigns.

Capitalism portrays the world in functional, impersonal and ruthless terms, but has proved to be the only viable economic system for developed societies. But people are not automatons and citizens not functioning units in the economic machine of society, although even our education systems sometimes treats us as if we are. As well as crackpot theories the left embodies virtues that when woven into the narrative of our societies, and accepted by many on the right as on the left, not only make society fairer and more humane, but probably more efficient if they result in just social policy. While socialism as a political and economic system has been tested to destruction in the social experiments of the last 100 years, the fundamental values that it embodies will always re-emerge, as they are not the preserve of leftist revolutionaries or a liberal intellectual elite, but fundamental to all decent human life.

 

Postscript to the Referendum: the Continuing Case for Reform of the EU

 

This article updates and replaces the article “The EU: Neither Remain nor Leave – Reform” posted before the EU referendum

Amid the celebrations, dejection, hopes, foreboding, possibilities, instability, treachery, transformation and general uncertainty that has followed the outcome of the EU referendum, one thing has been generally overlooked, which is unsurprising as it hardly featured in either the campaign to leave or to remain: the desperate need for fundamental reform of Europe’s political institutions. This imperative would not have disappeared if the decision had been one to remain (which it could so easily have been, given the very small margin), but it has not disappeared either with the decision to leave. Reform of the EU is possibly the only hope for a peaceful and prosperous Europe in the future.

There was something demeaning, lazy and spiteful about the way in which the campaigns leading up to the referendum were run; the incessant focus on whether we would be better or worse off financially had a distorting effect on our judgement, forcing us to see everything in terms of self-interest, both individually and as a nation. This is no doubt a contributing factor in the rise of xenophobic abuse since the vote. Like it or not, regardless of the outcome, we are bound to Europe through geography, ties of blood and history, and the fate of Europe is one that we will share. The case for reform of the EU remains as compelling as ever.

I believe the Remain camp lost in part because it was so complacent about one of the most corrupt political institutions that has ever been foisted on a population. We may have had a pax Europa for the last 50 years, but at what a cost! We have been offered bread and circuses while our fundamental freedoms guaranteed by such things as the supremacy of parliament and an independent judiciary have been systematically undermined by the existence of an unelected European Commission, a rubber stamp European Parliament and a European Court of Justice that has arrogated to itself the right to override any legislation passed in individual states (Evans-Pritchard, June 8th, 2016).

One the other hand, the Leave camp blithely proclaimed that the successful future of a small corner of the European continent would be guaranteed, supposedly on the basis of its past imperial glories, shorn now of the troublesome ties of Europe. They reimagined themselves in the romantic past of British pomp which they projected as the future; this in a world which is profoundly interconnected and which is becoming more so. The past week has presumably had a sobering effect on their short-lived exuberance. In the long-term they might be proved right, but it is already falling to steadier hands to make the reality match the promises. Part of that will be to negotiate a new relationship to Europe. Even though Britain has been protected from many of the currents of mainland European history because of its island status, it has always been affected by events there and usually involved. Is it imaginable that the EU could collapse catastrophically and the UK remain untouched? However, it should be incumbent on whatever government negotiates terms not to go with a begging bowl but to demand fundamental democratic reform.

All European nations have had appalling histories, but Britain has been a particularly successful model of political evolution. By the end of the 17th century, through the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, the political structure of Britain changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy based on the supremacy of parliament. It is the idea of parliamentary sovereignty which is the basis of modern democracy in the UK, a model much copied around the world. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle which “makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law” (parliament.uk). Moreover “…the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change” (ibid). It is on the basis of the British model of parliamentary sovereignty that fundamental reform of the EU’s institutions needs to take place. The relationship of the Commission and Parliament must be reversed so that law is made by elected representatives to Parliament and the Commission or its replacement, whether elected or not, functions as a corrective, revising body. National bloc voting should be replaced by genuine trans-national political parties. The European Court should be confined to a constitutional role in interpreting acts of a European parliament. This would not be the end of reform, but unless such a fundamental change is instituted there is little future for European democracy.

Of course, it could be that the future of Europe will be different and that it will revert to a nineteenth century model of independent states and principalities in constant tension and shifting alliance. I doubt this though; the geopolitical and existential threats facing mankind require new forms of European – and global – cooperation. The EU has been a way station on the road to the emergence of a permanent European political and economic alliance, which is necessary if there is to be permanent European peace and the creation of a shared prosperity. At its best the EU has contributed to a more open, internationalist and mobile population. However, the EU has stalled and declined precisely because it is the wrong model. The right model necessitates giving real democratic power to European institutions, making them fully accountable to the people of Europe. The question remains to what extent nations would tolerate any further loss of sovereignty that this might entail.

The UK has decided in the referendum to claim back its sovereignty ceded to the EU over the past 40 years.  It now finds itself in a state of flux in which it has not yet begun to find its new place in the world. Its great strength is its particular form of democracy, which should never again be compromised in any negotiation, and commitment to reforms along similar lines should be a required condition of all those with whom it negotiates. The best outcome would be the emergence from this crisis of democratically accountable European institutions with a flexible membership policy. That is something that I could imagine the UK might be willing to rejoin at some point in the future.

References

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Britain’s defiant judges fight back against Europe’s imperial court. The Daily Telegraph.

Parliament.uk, Parliamentary Sovereignty. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/role/sovereignty/

Related Articles

Timothy Garton Ash, As an English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life. The Guardian.

Michael Petley, The vote that ended whingeing to eternity. The Daily Telegraph.

Mary Dejevsky, The leadership vacuum following the Brexit vote shows the UK is not as stable as we like to think. The Independent.

George Greenwood, Can the EU survive Brexit? CapX

 

Foundations of the Moral Order

By Colin Turfus

Part 1: The Moral Basis of the European Project

The Two Pillars

For over half a century now a project has been under way to transform European society from what it was at the mid-point of the 20th century, a disparate collection of peoples possessed of distinct national identities and traditions, into a coherent unified whole based on principles of co-operation and solidarity. This project has been known by various names through its 60-year evolution but is now constituted as the European Union. Opinions vary as to whether the cost of what has been lost along the way is mitigated by the undoubted gains which have been made in terms of both co-operation and solidarity, particularly when one compares the history of the European project with the circumstances of the half-century which preceded its inception with two world wars, both initiated in West/Central Europe. But it cannot be denied that, in terms of its growth in size and scope, it has been an extremely successful political project. To what can this success be attributed? And why is it that when, as at present, voices of dissent are being heard ever more widely in relation to a growing number of issues which are so obviously damaging the life chances and disrupting the lives of many individual and families across Europe, so many continue to defend the track record of the European Union and maintain faith in its founding vision of a united Europe, indeed of a United States of Europe?

In a recently written report on the subject, written for the Theos think tank [8], Ben Ryan argues that the founding vision was essentially a moral one, based on the twin principles or “pillars” of solidarity and subsidiarity. The former, he suggests, is captured in the May 1950 Schuman Declaration as follows:

“Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

while subsidiarity is according to the glossary of the EU website [9] defined as a principle that

“…aims to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level.”

Specifically, it is the principle whereby the Union does not take action (except in the areas which fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

It will be my claim below that the success and enduring traction of the European project in winning the hearts and minds of citizens across Europe and beyond is in its appeal to these two principles; indeed that these two principles lie at the heart of any functioning moral framework.

Following the setting out of the founding vision in the first part of his report, Ryan goes on to describe in a second part how the original moral and spiritual vision has been lost and suggests how the various crises which are causing increasing disillusionment with the European project in a growing number of countries are a consequence of this. The third and final part of his report is then devoted to his proposal for “putting a soul (back) in the union.”

While I concur with Ryan in the broad conclusions he draws in his second part, I will seek to argue that what has gone wrong in the European project is not adequately characterised as simply a loss of moral vision but also has to be seen as a failure to grasp the nature of the moral order and to understand its foundations. I will draw my own conclusions on that basis of what can be done to restore the lost moral dimension and provide a new direction for development in the UK in particular, but more generally across the European continent.

The Solidarity Principle

As I suggested, it is hard to argue against the solidarity principle. It is in our fundamental human nature that we share a common identity with all members of the human race. This has led to the framing of the golden rule, formalised by Kant as we shall see below into his categorical imperative. However, the key point I want to bring out is “common identity.” Whereas some aspects of our identity are shared across all our fellow human beings others are specific to smaller groups or communities to which we belong. The fact that solidarity is premised on a shared identity, and rightly so, inevitably means that a greater degree of solidarity is felt for those with whom we have more in common and with whom we “identify” more strongly. This point was well brought out by David Goodhart [10] in his analysis of UK post-war immigration where he pointed out the unresolved tension at the heart of the “multicultural society” whereby separate identity of minorities is promoted while at the same time the inculcation of a universal sense of solidarity is sought.

Also it is human nature to feel greater solidarity for those with whom we feel most closely connected. But often when greater “solidarity” is advocated these days it is not in relation to those surrounding us in our daily lives but often in other countries or in far remote parts of the world, and/or in relation to people about whose lifestyles and circumstances we know little, but who are perceived or portrayed as being in need. I would suggest that this is probably a misuse of the concept of solidarity which is something that arguably should exist independently of the needs of those with whom we feel solidarity and which furthermore tends to be mutual. Such “solidarity” with relative strangers is more accurately characterised as sympathy or compassion, resulting in an expression of support: no less a virtue but a different one.

Within the European Union, one of the main avenues for the expression of solidarity is through the so-called Solidarity Fund whereby the cost of projects in less-developed areas of the Union (or even in accession states) are subsidised by those in more developed nations. This is done in such a way that the European Union itself and not the donors is perceived as the origin of the funding and indeed such is reinforced by the imposition of large plaques which must be displayed at penalty of hefty fines being levied in the event of failure to comply. In this way, the European project is able to expand and sell itself successfully to ever more countries, to the point where it is now running out of European countries and starting to talk about membership for Turkey. This is perhaps not surprising when one re-reads the excerpt from the Schuman Declaration above and realises that solidarity is there defined not as an end itself but as a means to fulfilling “the plan” through “concrete achievements” (their words not mine).

Another point I would make about solidarity is that it is a property associated with a community rather than with an individual, whereas of course sympathy and compassion represent the personal response of an individual. As I have already mentioned, they are also conditioned on the circumstances of another which elicits the response. A further point I would make is that, in the age of the welfare state and universal care, the meeting of the needs of those facing disadvantage or hardship in developed societies becomes less and less the responsibility of individuals motivated by compassion and more the responsibility of government and (publicly-funded) NGOs. So it is natural that the advocacy of more funds being made available for such purposes becomes a substitute for engaging in a direct expression of compassion for those whose needs we are made aware of through first-hand experience (rather then sound-bites on the BBC News at Ten or artful photojournalism). Even “charitable work” for most of those who engage in it in a voluntary capacity consists of raising funds for organisations whose charitable outreach work is invariably done these days by (well-)paid professionals.

So if UK taxpayers (or those of any other country) are to make available funds to support infrastructure development projects in other parts of Europe, let the case be made by our/their elected politicians as to which projects should be supported where. And let us have our say on the proposals in an election. Then it really will be solidarity and the satisfaction we feel will be all the more for it, as will the appreciation and recognition of those in receipt for that which is freely given. We in Britain are already giving about twice as much in overseas aid as a fraction of our GDP than any other country. It is not as if we need to be led by the example of our partners in Europe to find generosity in our hearts. Though to hear how we are criticised by them for our lack of “solidarity” one might easily imagine the situation to be otherwise.

And let us bear in mind that solidarity is mainly about our relationship with those with whom we live in community. Yes, it makes sense to feel and demonstrate solidarity with the Syrian refugees or the Polish immigrants who have moved in down the road or whom we meet at the local school. But our duty towards those who may be facing difficulty in Poland or Syria is a different matter. We should take care lest we find that our attempts to address their issues based on “compassion” rather than a familiarity with the local circumstances, and driven more by a desire to salve our conscience and/or signal our virtue, may do more harm than good and be rewarded not by reciprocated solidarity but by accusations of meddling or even “cultural imperialism.”

The Subsidiarity Principle

If the problem we identified above with the hollowing out of the concept of solidarity within the European Union to the point where it is largely about the enforced transfer of funds is acknowledged as meriting consideration, the shortcomings in this regard pale into insignificance in relation to the obfuscation and disingenuousness that exists around subsidiarity.

But first, why is subsidiarity important in a moral context? As I stated above, the concept of solidarity (or, if you like, empathy) gives rise to the golden rule and provides the justification for Kant’s categorical imperative which, I shall argue in Part 2 below, is the foundation of the modern doctrine of human rights. If the enumeration and enforcement of such rights were a sufficient condition for the establishment of a harmonious world order (or even a single nation), nothing further would need to be said and the argument for subsidiarity would be more difficult to make. But for reasons I shall return to below, human rights have become problematic in a number of ways.

The essence of the problem is that values and consequently what we see as “rights” have a habit of turning out to be incommensurable one with another. This is a reflection of the fact that our values are intrinsically connected to our identities which are in turn shaped by our history (personal and national) and our community, or more properly in a modern context, the diverse communities, real and virtual, in which we live out our lives. I like to think of this multiple connectedness in terms of an individual living at the intersection of multiple hyperplanes, each with its own set of rules and conventions. As we move around on each hyperplane we follow the conventions appropriate to that social context which are shared, either implicitly (between friends) or explicitly (as, for example, in the workplace). As long as activities on different hyperplanes remain partitioned, this works fine. But such separation is not always possible since the hyperplanes intersect. Also, particularly in the modern multicultural society, the rights of diverse groups thrown together in community to live according to their traditional values and lifestyle may explicitly prevent others from doing so. Whereas in the past this was always seen as a problem mainly for the newcomer or immigrant, the pendulum appears to have swung the other way to the point where the incumbents tend to be the ones who are expected to make concessions in the event that a conflict arises.

There are two opposed approaches which can be taken to address the above issue. One approach is to seek a reduction in the dimensionality of the hyperspace and look to impose as far as possible a one-size-fits-all set of rules which everyone is expected to conform to. This is the essence of the human rights approach whereby making society “fairer” comes to be about identifying groups who are disadvantaged or discriminated against and seeking redress through expressions of “solidarity,” publicising the purported injustices and obliging others (through the courts if necessary) to explicitly acknowledge those rights and to “respect” the chosen lifestyles or belief systems of those asserting them. One can certainly see that there is a strong strand of this way of thinking in the policy direction pursued by those driving the European Project.

The alternative approach is based on subsidiarity whereby we seek to allow established hyperplanes to exist and manage conflict according to agreed rules or compromise. Communities once established are, wherever possible, entitled to self-determination, unless some good reason can be given as to why this is antithetical to the greater public good (a Kantian categorical imperative). Interestingly, this second approach appears to be aligned with the idea of the multicultural society. I would argue that it may be. But it does not, as advocates of the multicultural society often argue, mean that we should necessarily side with the minority community and offer them preferential treatment. Much more could be said here but this point is not central to my main argument here.

In the context of the European Union, though, the half-heartedness of its commitment to the principle of subsidiarity is evident in the very language used. For example, areas where the Union has “exclusive competence” are explicitly excluded from challenge by the subsidiarity principle. But one of the biggest criticisms made against the European Project is the avidity with which it arrogates competences to itself at the expense of national parliaments; and the anti-democratic nature of such behaviour. Of course, the fact power was previously exercised at a subsidiary level but then is arrogated to the centre is clear evidence that the principle of subsidiarity is being turned on its head. How is this allowed to occur? The answer is again clear from the EU’s own words: checks are made, it is claimed, to ensure that action is not taken by the Union which would be more effective if taken at a local level. But who is carrying out the checks and making the decisions? We know the answer to that. And what visibility is granted to lower level authorities of decision-making processes which would allow them to influence the outcome? Clearly subsidiarity properly understood is something which the EU is likely only ever to be able to pay lip service to.

So we come to understand the crippled state the EU now finds itself in, where it maintains its popularity by identifying and paying homage to the twin pillars of solidarity and subsidiarity which support the moral order. But it has hollowed out the one and turned the other on its head. The consequence of this is that it heaps criticism and contempt on countries and groups which seek to challenge its one-size-fits-all policies which are defined as if they were categorical imperatives but are actually hypothetical, conditioned on the support they provide for the advancement of the European Project. It evades the need to universalize its arguments by vilifying the disenfranchised, impoverished masses who suffer the consequences of its misguided economic and social policies, justifying its anti-democratic approach on the basis that its critics are populist upstarts, led on by demagogues and racists and pursuing a self-serving nationalist agenda. It pretends to be listening but is only really interested in being seen to be listening. And rather than exercising subsidiarity it gets lackeys like our Prime Minister David Cameron to trumpet the virtues of the European Project and push it down the throat of the electorate with such force that his reputation and that of his chancellor will probably be damaged beyond repair. And indeed his own party will probably take a long time to recover from the battering it has visited on itself in recent weeks.

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In the second part of this essay I shall develop a framework for thinking more broadly about the establishment of a moral order in which some of the issues we currently face, not only in Europe but across the globe, might be better addressed.

References

[1] A. MacIntyre: After Virtue – A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed., 1985 (Duckworth, London)

[2] A. MacIntyre: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1988 (Duckworth, London)

[3] A. MacIntyre: Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 1990 (Duckworth, London)

[4] S. Dothan: Judicial Tactics in the European Court of Human Rights, 2011, Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 358, University of Chicago, Department of Law

[5] H.-W. Micklitz: Judicial Activism of the European Court of Justice and the Development of the European Social Mode in Anti-Discrimination and Consumer Law, 2009, European University Institute Working Papers, LAW 2009/19.

[6] R. Scruton: A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein 1984 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London)

[7] M. Oakeshott: The Tower of Babel in “Rationalism in Politics” 1962 (Methuen), first published in 1948 in Cambridge Journal, vol. 2

[8] Ben Ryan: A Soul for the Union, 2016, Theos Think Tank Report http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2016/01/21/a-soul-for-the-union

[9] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/subsidiarity.html

[10] David Goodhart, 2013, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

 

The Intransigence of the Absurd: the Discourses of Racial and Sexual Identity in ‘Identity Politics’

There has long been popular and scientific fascination with feral children, reared and cared for by animals and with no contact with human society, that behave like the species that they live among and, we assume, identify themselves as. Such behaviour is not limited to humans; there are many examples, particularly of domesticated animals, that are adopted by another species that come to assume some of the characteristics of that species. This suggests that what we call identity is a universal of higher intelligence and that it is fairly plastic.

Humans, though, as is often the case, test this theory to destruction. An American woman, Rachel Dolezal, was recently denounced for identifying herself as black and living as a black woman, when her parents were both white, yet men who declare themselves to be women, dress as women and even undergo gender reassignment surgery are increasingly celebrated and accepted on their own terms, such as the much-publicised Caitlyn Jenner. Those who do not react viscerally to this conjunction and implied equivalence may be as puzzled as I am; but even those who do should reflect why these two cases should be considered so different.

Something I read a few years ago struck me then – as it still does – as so outrageous that I struggle to convince myself that it was not an imagined memory rather than an actual one. It was a brief article in some sort of educational magazine, a serious article, not a spoof to the best of my knowledge. It stated, as proof of commitment to the principle of inclusivity, that a particular school was being kept open at night because one of the students, a girl – let us call her Samantha – was a vampire, and could only work at night. Putting to one side the issues of the veracity of memory, journalistic objectivity and the wisdom of local education authorities (their respective dysfunctions are legendary), the central issue is not whether Samantha was a vampire, because clearly she was not, but why some assertions have assumed the power of fact, when the only fact is the fact of assertion.

Throughout history people have always sought to establish and assert their identity, but this process is complex and its focus has shifted over historical time among the kaleidoscope of possible markers such as region, religion, wealth and education. However, the fundamentals of identity are always the same: a playing out of our twin desires for individual freedom, particularly that of expressing our individual difference, and belonging, in which we find and sustain our similarity with others. This process can occur at several levels, as part of our individuality derives from belonging to a hierarchy of in-groups, such as our specific family, neighbourhood, city, region and country, in distinction to a series of out-groups characterised by otherness. Importantly, the precise definition of the other – as outcast, rebel, stranger, outlaw, scapegoat or victim – has a role in our self-definition as not-other.

On the other hand, sometimes our individuality is itself a form of self-imposed otherness, where we alienate ourselves from the mass to which we implicitly belong, in an act of self-exclusion that arouses, at the best, a sneaking reflexive admiration for the outsider hero – oneself – or, at the worst, self-pity for the identification of oneself as victim. Paradoxically, this self identification can become the basis for delusional group identity, in which there is a curious but toxic admixture of feelings of inferiority and superiority.

On one level it is strange that race is such a sensitive issue. After all, the boundaries of race are rather fluid, and science has never managed to establish a consistent or agreed definition. There are genetically homogenous groups such as Icelanders, Ashkenazi Jews and Japanese, but this is due to geographic and cultural isolation, and these pools do not correspond to what we normally call race, but the more limited concept of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are actually complex cultural artefacts, and this is no more so than when we talk about the labels ‘black’ and ‘white’. From an evolutionary perspective the terms are nonsense; the only people who perhaps have the right to a generic and widespread genetic distinction are aboriginal Africans, but not because they are black in colour – the !Kung bushmen of Namibia, for example, have a reddish skin – but because they do not have the 1-4% of Neanderthal genes that the rest of mankind has inherited from prehistoric interbreeding between the two  human species. Mixing of peoples in the West, particularly in the Americas, means that genetic makeup and skin colour is on a spectrum of continuous variation; a surprising number of white Americans have some black ancestry.

Nonetheless, we can discern that the problematic nature of race does not reside in biology but in history, and that what we call black culture is really a shared history, a history that includes slavery, prejudice, apartheid, persecution, ridicule, drudgery and social deprivation, but also the enormous personal, communal and political forces that have forged great social and cultural gains from such a disadvantageous position. What we see, in fact, is a historically subjugated part of a heterogeneous population seeking common cause to overturn past injustices, rather than a distinct and homogenous entity. But in identity politics the narrative has assumed the status of a categorical assertion, wherein being ‘black’ is recognised as a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying oneself as part of a wronged community, which has become, perversely if understandably, a badge of honour. In its most radical form it assumes that dangerous polarisation of simultaneous inferiority and superiority referred to above, in which the mantle of the suffering victim and outsider can symbolically be asserted, not on the basis of experience necessarily (although many young black men can testify to being the subject of police harassment, known as ‘arrested for being black’), but simply on the basis of the colour of one’s skin. This was Rachel Dolezal’s perceived moral transgression: she assumed a badge of honour to which she was not entitled.

Interestingly, the older generation of radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer, apply much the same criterion of exception to transsexual women, as pretend women who have no right to assume the innate moral superiority of real women achieved through resistance to male domination. Now they find themselves sidelined and – in a recent neologism – ‘no-platformed’ by the younger generation of activists. This disparity in the reception of the trans-racial and the transsexual is hard to explain on the surface. It may be partly due to the great strides that have been made in women’s equality in the last generation, which have defanged the political radicalism of the earlier feminism, whereas racial equality lags behind, but I do not find this a persuasive answer.

I believe that underlying  this phenomenon is something that we could call the intransigence of the absurd, that is the assertion of something for which there is no scientific evidence, but which must be uncompromisingly defended by rhetoric and the layering of myth, most forcefully, naturally, by those who seek political leverage. A prototypical example of this is the assumed historical destiny and moral superiority of nationhood by nationalists of all stripes. The notion of race is one such absurdity, including that of being ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Asian’, which must be vociferously perpetuated by all those seeking to take advantage of individuals who need to ground their tenuous sense of self by ascribing identity or otherness to individuals who bear a passing similarity or difference to themselves, a notion, moreover that must then be imposed on those who wish to make no such distinctions.

The reception of transsexuals into the community of women is based on a different narrative logic. The status of male and female sexual identity is so firmly established in biological reality, that a man believing himself to be a woman (or vice-versa) and acting the part is a patent absurdity recognised as such by everyone. Therefore, the deception has a theatricality that is acknowledged on all sides, as it has been throughout history in many different cultures. There is a twist to this, however. There is no political leverage in mere acceptance of this theatre; therefore, human sexual differentiation has been mythologised in the notion of gender, a radicalised state of indifferance and a socio-political chimera that fuses two notions of moral transgression: that of non-acceptance of the myth; and that of the traditional boundaries of the sexes, which must be preserved in order to be wilfully flouted.

The exact sociological function of race and gender finally diverge. Race is about belonging and exclusion, while gender has become about inclusion and freedom, specifically the freedom to define one’s sexual identity. Both notions are part of the narrative of how we establish social identity in a complex world, and should be tolerated on that understanding. However, we should never lose sight of their fundamental absurdity in inverting reality. That absurdity correlates strongly with an intransigent defence of the absurd; having abandoned evidence, it is not too great a step to abandon reason, openness and a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.

Asserting identity should be – as the word implies – about seeking universality above all, as a basis for accepting diversity. Identity politics does precisely the opposite. By repeatedly invoking historical injustices and incubating the fragmentation of human experience to create new forms of victimhood, it promotes belligerence as the essence of the shared social space, inclusion as a tool of exclusion, and the eternal past as the future.

(Note: the term ‘indifferance’, a play on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’, denotes the prescribed ignoring of difference, distinction or differentiation, leading to moral indifference, rather than toleration, which recognises both difference and moral boundaries.)