Sunday, February 7, 2016

Political Atrophy

Peter Hitchen's compares the forthcoming UK referendum on leaving the EU to that of a prisoner who accidentally finds himself outside the prison and soon longs to return there. His main point is that Britain simply no longer has the indigenous competence to be an independent country once again:
Anyway, how many active adults, now participating in the political process, can remember what it was like being in an independent country, whose Parliament was sovereign,  whose embassies flew its own flag and nobody else’s, whose head of state wasn’t a citizen of someone else’s country,  which chose its own economic policy, had its own fishing grounds, decided how to subsidise its own farms, issued its own passports, controlled its own borders, made its own alliances and trade agreements, did not abandon its traditions and its particular special ways of doing things to conform with some great overarching plan?
If I was English I'd certainly be tempted to vote to leave the EU: the European Project is now akin to building a bigger mainframe computer in a world of smartphones and iPads. It has outlived its purpose (or perhaps forgotten it) and is increasingly in danger of making things worse for European citizens rather than better. As Bryan Ryan recently put it in a new paper from Theos, Europe has lost its soul and needs to rediscover it. Though he, like I, thinks it may be too late.

What might make me hesitate - in the event I was voting on Brexit - is the state of England itself. The England I knew when I lived there in the 1980s is mostly gone. Benjamin Schwarz argues in a brilliant essay that the deliberate project of cultural revolution via mass immigration instigated by the first New Labour government under Tony Blair in the 1990s has 'succeeded' in that 'England' and what it means to be 'English' isn't what it used to be, and never will be again. He observes (before quoting one of England's greatest socialists, George Orwell) that:
In the context of the enlightened cosmopolitan values that hold sway in Britain today, once the majority’s views are thus ruled beyond the pale, liberal democracy permits—in fact demands—that the majority be excluded from political consultation. At the very best, it is safe to say that the confines of acceptable public debate on culturally determined ethnic differences, national identity, and mass immigration are exceedingly narrow. The consensus of the bien pensant can, of course, be just as effective as outright censorship in its stultifying political effect, as Orwell explained: 
"At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing."
Hitchen's gloomy assessment of England's atrophied abilities to ever again be an independent nation is a timely reminder as we endure a General Election debate here in Ireland about non-issues such as 'fiscal space'.  Our own 'orthodoxy' leaves us dangerously unprepared for the disruption likely in our next door neighbour in the coming months and years (even if they vote against Brexit).  I hope the English vote to remain in the EU for Ireland's sake (at least in the short run), but I'd applaud a vote to leave if it meant the England I admire might be saved.

And who knows, it might even create an opportunity to save Europe's soul. Stranger things have happened.






Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Groundhog Election

Tuesday 2nd February was Groundhog Day, and an excuse to watch the movie again - one of my all time favourites. It's a story of redemption and a reminder that we mostly live on the surface of life, ignorant of the riches beneath. It brings to life Gandhi's advice to: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever."

The main trope of the movie is that Phil Connors (Bill Murray in one of his best roles) gets to relive Groundhog Day over and over again: gradually maturing from a selfish nihilist obsessed with his own desires, to eventually become a compassionate, creative man caring for those around him.

Which brings us to General Election 2016, or what already feels like the Groundhog Election. Of course much has changed (mainly for the better) since 2011, but what hasn't changed is how little control over our collective future we actually have as a small, open economy, locked into the eurozone. Ireland has less say in how our politicians raise taxes and spend the proceeds than we (or they) realise.

But the 'deja vu all over again' feeling isn't about economic and fiscal policies. Indeed, some things are better left unchanged. Rather for me the feeling comes from seeing what Dan Klein calls The People's Romance in action again. That strange 'madness of the crowd' surge of sentiment that this time - together - we can set out on a new course, chart a different direction and finally, finally reach the promised land of [insert your favourite policies here] when "all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." It's a delightful idea - I'm as partial to it myself as the next idealist - but in the end I do know it's fiction, just like in the movie.

That said, do checkout out Smartvote - a sort of Tinder for Irish voters. And keep the romance alive...


Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Sport of Politics

Some people are into politics the way other people are into sport. For the former, a General Election is the World Cup/Olympics/Euros all rolled into one glorious day of voting. But for people not into politics - just as for people not into sport - the hijacking of the airwaves, pubs and casual conversations by all the talk about the big day and whose going to win can be tedious indeed.

The appeal of politics is pretty much the same as sport: it's a knock out competition, a zero-sum game in which you're either a winner or a loser - though without the compensation of a runners up prize in the case of politics. Appealing, of course, if you're into that sort of thing.

Funny enough - though it might be hard to believe from the growing crescendo of speculation about when we're going to have a general election let alone whose going to win - an awful lot of people aren't really into politics. The European Social Survey in 2014 showed that 29% of Irish adults are 'not at all interested' in politics, the second highest level of 'political ennui' in Europe after the Czech Republic, and twice the average of the countries surveyed.

Nor does it stop there: fewer than 5% of Irish adults have 'worked in a political party or action group in the past 12 months'. Unchanged in more than a decade. Indeed, only a third of adults 'feel closer to a particular party than all other parties', also well below the average in the countries surveyed. In contrast, in 2014 40% of Irish adults 'attend religious services apart from special occasions' at least once a week or more often, 54% attend at least once a month or more often (only Poland has a higher level of religiously active adults).

There are ten times as many people 'actively engaged' in religion in Ireland nowadays as in party politics; and yet we're told it's the churches that are 'out of touch' and 'in crisis'.

The difference, of course, is that - every four years or so - we get to put a number in a box opposite  the picture of a person we didn't choose from a party we don't belong to who, if elected, will vote for policies we may not agree with.  It is a terrible system - except for all the alternatives (or so they say).

Enjoy the match.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Theo-volution

John Gray has written an entertaining review of Dominic Johnson's book God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. He's quite sympathetic to the author's thesis (that God is on the right side of evolution - 'theo-volution'?), and a lot less sympathetic to the New Atheists addressed in the book. Gray notes:
These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.
Furthermore:
For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.
As the quote above from Richard Dawkins suggests, even some New Atheists are beginning to note that not all religions are created equal.

Elsewhere, Edward Feser provides another interesting review, this time of Gerry Coynes' book Faith vs Fact. Feser has a way with one line put downs that's very amusing, though a little less informative than Gray's approach.  One example:
Indeed, you will find in Coyne’s book more straw men than you would at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz
Then again, Feser doesn't so much do blog posts as essays, so he can be very informative when he wants to (and regularly is).


Friday, January 15, 2016

Dealing from Our Deck

First David Bowie, then Alan Rickman and now PJ Mara! As someone of the same vintage as myself once remarked: 'God is dealing from our deck'.

I think it's more than just a case of 'boomer hysterics' as Laura Perrins describes the (over-)reaction to Bowie's death (though I think she's partly right). No, for me it follows on from the common observation that a year can seem an eternity to a young child because one year is so long relative to his or her short life so far.  Likewise it follows that a year to someone, shall we say, 'past the halfway mark' is also long relative to what remains of his or her life. 

So if it's not too late, let me wish you a full and happy New Year, that is, all 365 366 days of them...



Monday, January 11, 2016

Sliding, Not Slipping

It's not too late for some 'year ahead' prognostications. John Michael Greer offers up his own, summarised succinctly thus:
Thus my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come.
Based on 2016 year-to-date this one may well be on track.

The Archdruid sets out a few, more specific forecasts:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the next tech bust will be under way by the end of 2016.
Also:
the mass marketing of what will inevitably be called “the PV [photovoltaic] revolution” will get under way in 2016.
Then there's:
the most likely outcome of the 2016 election is the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in January 2017.
Wrapping up with:
I’m going to plop for a date and say that the Saudi regime will be gone by the end of 2016. 
I think he's on fairly safe ground with his first forecast as I don't think there's enough QE wind left to fill the sails of an even bigger stock market bubble - for all stocks, not just tech. Regarding PV, I simply don't know enough on the topic: so I'll pass on that one.

As for President Trump, I agree. If you've been following Scott Adams' blog it's hard to see how Trump can be stopped (and if there's anything in rumours about Hillary Clinton's health issues she might not even end up in the frame against him).  Even 'Democrat Defectors' are turning Trump, shown in this fascinating 'dial test' among voters of Trump's first TV ad.

Finally, I don't think the Saudi regime will be gone by the end of 2016 - they have enough reserves to buy their self-preservation for another year or two. At least I hope so, otherwise we might all be checking out photovoltaics...

And on the sad day that's in it - here's a different kind of forecast from The Man Who Fell to Earth:








Sunday, January 10, 2016

Future Repugnant

Some advice for 2016 - hold your nose:
...the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.
John Maynard Keynes
ht National Intelligence Council

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Defragmentation

Paul Graham - cofounder of Y Combinator among other things - recently penned an insightful essay on The Refragmentation looking at how a world of 'big is beautiful' corporations, media and even churches gave way (fragmented) to a dynamic new world of start ups and greater choice in most spheres of life. He observes:
In the early 20th century, big companies were synonymous with efficiency. In the late 20th century they were synonymous with inefficiency. 
Graham speculates about how this came about: technology is deemed to have played a key - if not the key - part. It's a compelling narrative (set out at 70 characters per line because he thinks this makes the text more legible, and he may be right), so do read it.  Graham does see a downside to the end of the behemoths that shaped much of America when he was growing up: income inequality and job insecurity, for example. So he's no Panglossian.

But I think he's wrong at a fundamental level. He also observes:
The companies in the S&P 500 in 1958 had been there an average of 61 years. By 2012 that number was 18 years.
Which sort of supports his point, but also contradicts it. The point is: there's still an S&P 500 - and then there's the rest. Last time I looked, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google and Facebook were fairly large companies: on some measures more dominant in their respective markets than the likes of General Foods and General Motors were in Graham's youth.  They just don't (need to) employ as many people as the 'big businesses' of the past (thanks to technology and the global supply chain it enables) - but they're still 'big' on all the same measures of economic power, influence on government policy, and barriers to entry (albeit different ones) as before.

But that's not my main gripe with The Defragmentation hypothesis.  For all the undoubted breakdown of corporate, media and cultural behemoths in the last two decades of the 20th century, there's one that's gotten bigger and less fragmented, namely: Government.

Government's share of the economy has risen in just about every developed country since the middle of the 20th century, after a brief decline in some countries for a short time (including Ireland). If anything, the technologies that drove The Refragmentation may well enable further growth in Government's share of economic activity, and not just in the West.

China's total debt is now half the world's entire debt, adding 61% percentage points of debt to GDP in just the last five years.  A case of Defragmentation perhaps (until it all goes pear-shaped, of course). Technology has also enabled China to gamify social control (through schemes like Sesame Credit).

It seems even Americans are waking up to the Defragmentation of Government issue: Government has just been named as the top US problem in a Gallup poll for the second year in a row.

Nevertheless, here in Ireland the recovery might witness a declining role for Government in terms of both economic activity and its overall influence in citizen's lives. Breath in, hold... keep holding............


still holding?


Sunday, January 3, 2016

2016

It's that time of year: a time for forecasts, predictions and prophecies.  That said, I don't think one year makes much of a difference on the scale of 'change that matters'.  Most of what occupies the headlines (and the commentaries I read) is the stuff of 'sound and fury, (usually) signifying nothing'. But entertaining nevertheless.

Maybe we need to take a longer term perspective (like the xkcd cartoon opposite)?

Of course, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising provides an opportunity to widen our temporal horizons a little (I even wrote an entire book on the subject once).  Though anniversaries have a way of becoming a Rorschach test onto which we project very contemporary (and therefore transitory) concerns and anxieties. Just as the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 was an exercise in 'didn't we do well' self-congratulations (all evidence to the contrary); so 2016 is shaping up to be an exercise in 'let's create a real secular Republic' just like the Rebels wanted (again, all evidence to the contrary).

Instead of using the past to explain the present, we often tell stories about the present to explain the past (the 'Politically Correct History' trope). While the stories we tell about the future (whether a year ahead or a century ahead) always bear an uncanny resemblance to the present (the 'Society Marches On' trope).

So I expect lots of 'headlines' in 2016 (both the predictable and unpredictable kind), but not a lot of change (other than a further leftward shift in Ireland's Overton window after the General Election... or maybe after the second one later in the year).


Monday, November 30, 2015

Mimetic Jihad

Those who protest against “Western ethnocentrism” imagine themselves to owe nothing to the West, since after all they rage furiously against it. But in fact, theirs is the most Western perspective of all, more Western than their adversaries. Not only is the revolt against ethnocentrism an invention of the West, it cannot be found outside the West. …Western culture is quite obviously ethnocentric. But it is no more ethnocentric than any other, even if its ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of its power. René Girard
The late René Girard - he passed away earlier this month - was one of the most original thinkers of the past one hundred years. I believe his work will eventually prove more important than the works of Freud, Nietzsche or Marx combined. And not just because he was right and they were wrong.

Girard's groundbreaking insight - that humans are 'mimetic', i.e.: that our desires come from observing what others want, with the result that human culture ultimately degenerates into violent competition for the things desired until a sacrificial scapegoat is found to 'take the blame' and so peace is restored (for a while) - has profound implications for our understanding of modern humanity and the worsening problem of collective violence.

But he went further: he argued that Christianity represented a 'structural break' in human history because, for the first time, the scapegoat - Jesus Christ - was innocent, and seen to be such. Now to our 21st century ears this might sound obvious: but Girard points out that every other culture (and many since) have always assumed the 'guilt' of the scapegoat. Indeed, he saw most religions as a solution to the problem of mimetic violence as they were built around a cult(ure) of sacrifice to preserve the peace. Christianity 'revealed' the falsity of the scapegoat mechanism, throwing us back on a previously unknown solution to humanity's mimetic compulsion to escalating violence: turning the other cheek and desiring the one thing everyone can have without constraint on the other, i.e.: the love of God. It worked, at least for a while.

The power of any theory - be it psychoanalysis, dialectical materialism or mimetic theory - is found in its predictive power. On this basis, Girard's theory stands head and shoulders above what passes for most contemporary analysis of our global situation. He sees the violence of Islamic Jihadism as a regression to a type of mimetic rivalry that threatens to drag us back to pre-Christian ways of competition and conflict.

Nor is the post-Christian West immune from mimetic rivalry and escalating violence. Girard saw the rejection of the West's Christian heritage (in a desperate attempt to stand outside of history, culture and heritage so as not to be ethnocentric) as a precursor to a greater level of collective violence than even our pre-Christian ancestors could have imagined. Nothing short of apocalypse in an age of Total War.

As more and more Western powers queue up to bomb Syria and rid the world of The Taliban al-Qaeda ISIS, we once again we find ourselves trapped in a world of mimetic desire and the search for scapegoats. It won't end well. It never did, and it never will. 

By the way, you can download and listen to a marvellous, five-part interview with René Girard by David Cayley - called The Scapegoat: René Girard's Anthropology of Violence and Religion - on iTunes here.

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