Secular plasticity

The latest copy of The Big Issue reminds me why I am happy to make buying it from time to time my contribution to helping the homeless and struggling. Most often what they say, and John Bird’s Creditworthiness Assessment Bill, shows just the sort of pragmatic, low-key radicalism I reckon will be more helpful to the poor than any amount of intellectual revolution or left-liberal (or ‘neoliberal’!) playacting. The Big Issue are secularism at its best.

According to the National Secular Society the ‘foundation of secularism’ is ‘separation of religion from the state’, whilst the Cambridge Dictionary identifies it as ‘the belief that religion should not be involved with the ordinary social and political activities of a country’. On that unexciting basis almost anyone could be a secularist, including those religious people, of whom there are many, who imagine that their religion can be a purely personal matter for them. No problem about having a dogmatic faith, so long as it’s not to be both classified as ‘religion’ and operate publicly – a ‘cult’ might pass as secularism.

Another irony – the one group we can definitely exclude from the class of secularists, namely, religious ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’, are precisely the people who make a nonsense of classical sociology of religion as the cohesive binding force which holds society together. In face of rebellion, disruption, or terrorism inspired by any religion traditional conservatism from Burke onward collapses into absurdity. (Roger Scruton please take note.) From a social standpoint religious extremists are the world’s best secularists.

The latest Big Issue gives us one other connection to secularism, with a review of Mary Beard’s Women & Power (very topical). Beard is one of those feminist intellectuals who devotes much energy to studying ultra-macho societies, where religion was kept thoroughly under secular control, and has much of value to say about them. For my sins, my interest in modernity makes me want to ask why we are no longer so keen to exclude and silence women at every turn. I cannot help thinking this is part of why 1914 (rather than 1917) is such a massively important date in world history.


No safe spaces anywhere

In some moods I can sympathise with the ‘safe spaces’ movement amongst students. If I hear any more about Brexit, Claude Junker, populists and the American gun lobby or so-called ‘Buddhists’ in Myanmar, I’ll feel like throwing the TV out of the window. But, hang on, suppose I did that? Would that make the world a safer place to live in?

Politicians and journalists who talk about universities being places where students (and staff) should be learning to confront issues and argue see only part of the point. The spread of intolerance and dogmatism in much of the world can give any young person trying to find her, or his, way the impression that no one is interested in listening to arguments anyway. All too often the people who stand for compromise lose out – and seem incompetent to boot.

I actually meet people who are deeply unhappy with global capitalism as we find it, but doubt that a viable alternative exists. No wonder the Russian Revolution centenary is a shower, even without the following 100 years of Russian history. It’s not just current affairs that make depressing watching; Bettany Hughes’ Horrible Histories account of those Romans once thought the greatest of civilisations can supplement. In short, arguments and debate can seem like a futile waste of time and effort. Easier, if not safer, to stick with your tribal dogma and hope it’s others getting killed or dispossessed.

Sorry – I don’t have any Messianic solutions to offer beyond more argument and debate – but perhaps the Big issue’s social investment might be worth a thought.

Am I a ‘liberal’?

I used to think of myself as something called a ‘liberal’ (not an anarchist, not least because of the way family honour operates) but now I’m not sure what I am. Perhaps I don’t care.

My attitudes are roughly what they always were. But ‘liberal’ seems to be replacing ‘fascist’ as the favourite label for whoever different people don’t like. In academic terminology ‘liberal’ basically stands for keeping the state out of my private life and property – which is not really for me. (‘Private life’ is Fantasy No.1). In American and journalistic parlance ‘liberal’ is someone who is keen on ‘progressive’ social changes, like disability rights or same-sex marriage. I support much of that I detail, but find myself more sure about what I’m against (such as racism) than how a less ideological future might work. Then, of course, ‘neo-liberal’ is all about free markets and deregulation (in business and economy). For me there’s been too much of that already.

For now I not only propose that we abandon the label ‘liberal’ as next to meaningless, but I will also refuse to apply it to myself. I have yet to think of a replacement. That would probably mean coining a new term to describe myself. Whether it’s worth going to that trouble I doubt.

No post-truth

Thanks to President Trump, Twitter, and other related phenomena, we have recently been hearing much about the ‘post-truth society’. I will now say with some confidence that there is no such thing as a post-truth society, and never will be.

It’s easy to get carried away with ‘post-modern’, ‘post-structural’, and the like. As robotics develops we might soon be hearing about ‘post-human’! But the very fact we sometimes find, as we always have, people, not least powerful people like politicians, businesspeople, officials, and so on, being ‘economical with the truth’ if not downright lying, confirms why truth matters and will continue to matter. Would anyone try to avoid the truth if it wasn’t important?

I suspect that when we talk about (moral) obligations to speak or uncover the truth we are talking loosely. It would be more accurate to say that we often have good reasons to rely on truth – and specific truths – and so we set up obligations to respect it. There is nothing arbitrary about perjury being a criminal offence. That is to say, truth is important enough to dictate our morals and even law, and not the other way around.

This is not to say we will ever always stick to the truth, or even should do. Sometimes, a white lie is the kindly thing to do. (The crucial thing is about taking unfair advantage.) But we’ll always be finding too many truths we need to know about, and tell others about, to leave ourselves with a post-truth society.

Are we better off miserable?

Russia’s great composer Tchaikovsky illustrated two real points with his final work, the Pathetique Symphony. One, you can be popular being miserable if you do it well enough and, two, it’s easier that way to be soulful – rather than just bombastic. Yet there is a third pitfall awaiting all those who complain that news and news media is depressing and demand more cheer or ‘good news’. Simply, we often agree on what’s gloomy and miserable, so reporters from Syria or Yemen can take a sombre stance with confidence that we won’t complain. But all too often one person’s, or one group’s, or one country’s, good news is someone else’s bad news.

Sometimes, as with sports results, it’s as simple as India rather than Pakistan winning the cricket world cup – obviously good news for Indians and bad news for Pakistanis. In other cases it gets more complicated: do we believe the scientists who tell us that chlorinated chicken is not only 20 per cent cheaper, but it’s safe to eat and so we can happily join the Americans in eating it and save 20 per cent per bird – good news of course? Or do we keep wondering who funds the scientific research and get ourselves miserable over possible conflicts of interest? There are cases, like alarms about fracking or population growth, where we do look quizzically at claims of bad news but at least in those cases we can relax and think ‘Well, if they’re wrong it’ll be fine after all’ whereas if the good news turns out wrong we know we might be really stuffed…

So, next time you complain the news is depressing, just think about what you wish for.

Free Spaces and Smart Suits

One change I notice since I was a nipper is that we no longer hear about people being ‘non-political’. In my young days it was fairly commonplace to suggest that ‘non-political’ people are typically conservative, but nowadays we’re used to conservatives being as political as anybody.

It is true that we still have rhetoric about ‘shared values’ or ‘what unites us is more important than what divides us’, especially at times of crisis – disasters, terrorist outrages, tragedies, and so on. But rather than being in any sense conservative (or Conservative) this rhetoric has the feel of shared seemly performance as distinct from shared values. Precisely the act of making an appearance in the ‘public realm’ that the social theorist Hannah Arendt talked about 60 years ago. What is more doubtful is whether we become free by making such appearances as Arendt thought we do. It is an open question whether members of Camden Borough Council are acting freely in evacuating people from the Chilcot tower blocks when some of the residents think they are just reacting so as to be seen to be doing something about fire safety.

At least that is very serious. When it comes to TV images, with even Jeremy Corbyn trimming his beard or Emmanuel Macron appearing in smart suits, I wonder whether a resurrected Ms Arendt would just accept the joke is on her, and laugh.

Citizen Claire and Buying Patriotic

The ‘UKippers’ claim, with apparent justification, to have won the arguments about viability of the European Union and the UK’s ability to survive outside European integration. But they are losing the other argument that Dr. Owen and the SDP lost in the 1980s, namely, about it being possible to be a successful (British) patriotic movement without being Conservatives.

Claire Foges is a Conservative, but backs her ‘Buy British’ appeal with the distinction between patriotism and nationalism or xenophobia familiar in academic arguments about citizenship and ‘republican virtues’. That distinction is a genuine one in the abstract, but all too often politically ineffectual. The last thing Citizen Claire herself wants is for her patriotic appeal to be politically exclusive. Yet the political logic of UKIP’s fading after Brexit is that ‘Buy British’ will turn into a Conservative identity.

Strangely, Citizen Claire’s dilemma arises from the repeated failure of the political Left ever since the French Revolution to avoid matching a demand for inclusive political community with the psychological reality that communal identities on which patriotism depends require separation from those outside. Patriots worldwide regularly try to avoid thus fostering enemies on the lines argued by the fascist Carl Schmitt (successfully more often with sport and entertainment than with politics or economics), but the Schmitt menace always lurks behind the scenes. And the British Conservative Party has a facility for making enemies beyond that of the British themselves.

Public spirited for what?

At my age I could just fade out quietly with my pension and health benefit, while hoping there’s still enough funding for my future survival as a member of the aging population. Yet somehow I carry on imagining I have something to offer. Why? It’s partly personal – with no children I don’t want my mother’s efforts for me wasted. But then observing the world suggests some questions to raise.

Admiration for public-spirited and patriotic people is as old as humanity’s first gathering into clans and tribes, with the dream of converting us from self-indulgent consumers into active citizens being only the latest variation on the theme. Unfortunately, there are as many ways of being public-spirited and a citizen as there are of moving around. No doubt supporters of the current wave of nationalist populisms believe themselves to be the very model of patriotic, active citizens. Their liberal or left antagonists are just as sure of their concern for the public welfare. So the question arises: What should we be citizens of? Or, what welfare should we take care of?

Closely related is the current fashion for everyone from Corbyn to Erdogan to be challenging the ‘establishment’ on behalf of the people. I can’t help wondering who are the establishment? Maybe Wall Street denizens are beginning to feel just a little lonely?

Politics beyond borders

Amongst all the current talk about ‘populism’, worries about immigration, jobs and the rest, there are now warning signs of a new arrogance amongst certain journalists and politicians (not Donald Trump). Besides the intolerance of some ‘Brexiteers’ within the Conservative Party – including toward ‘Remoaners’ within their own ranks – we see sneering references to districts like north London or the north-east and west coasts of America where soft-headed liberal lefties are supposed to be concentrated.

When reviewing a book like Utopia for Realists, proposing a 15-hour week and no borders, it’s easy for Iain Martin to be scornful (in parts I agree with him). But the real challenge for populists like Martin, or the ordinary ‘Somewheres’ David Goodhart (who is not at all arrogant) is talking about, has never come from liberal lefties who might buy Utopia for Realists or their equivalents in past eras. It comes from someone like the German authoritarian Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The basic idea behind constitutional government, international law, and the ‘liberal’ tradition from which they sprang, is that we will have opposing interests and disagree, but that we need to get along with a measure of mutual tolerance and respect despite our oppositions. Schmitt, who had witnessed the Weimar Republic after the First World War, and, as he saw it, the failure of liberal jurisprudence, saw matters differently. He argued that political communities develop on a basis of friends and enemies, with outsiders being potential enemies. Also, since friend/enemy groupings form within states as well as between them, Schmitt prescribed a strong authoritarian state to handle the conflicts and impose its settlement on them.

We should remember the profound difference between someone who disagrees with you, or has a disputed claim against you, and an enemy who seeks to destroy you. Controlling mass immigration is fine, but leaving destitute refugees who may come to hate you is something else.

One other point. Have populists noticed that by distancing himself from the GCHQ spying story, assuring Chancellor Merkel that he accepts free trade, and negotiating with Congress on replacing Obamacare, President Trump has already started behaving more like an ordinary politician?

Me and Sartre’s citizens

Despite being past the 65 landmark, I haven’t yet settled to just reminiscing or pottering about in the garden. I leave it to others to say whether I’m self-centred, but health and narrowly focused campaigns around me again seem to leave me having to choose my own projects existentialist style.

As I look around, I see democratic citizenship working differently in the 21st century from what theorists from Aristotle to date have imagined. Even when we are being patriotic, and/or participating in the community and being public-spirited, we’re constantly taking different positions on welfare, migration, capitalism and markets, security, women leaning in or leaning out, green energy, robots (and robot citizens?), gene editing, religious education, military power, ……., all shown by the societies or groups we join, the parties and candidates we vote for, the religions (and movements within religions) we adhere to, and indeed the careers we follow. In all these things we are acting socially, just as the citizenship enthusiasts say we do, and yet we still end up choosing what to believe in and how to find meaning in our lives. In a bizarre way, Sartre was right after all with his notion of ‘practical ensembles’ mixing freedom with social action. Sartre’s metaphysics may be rubbish, but his 1960s and 1970s theorizing works out as what we’re all doing now. Whether we’re protectionists trying to hold onto our (and our workmates) jobs, or charity workers trying to help dispossessed refugees, we’re all in those practical ensembles – having chosen which ones to join.