Is current democracy deliberative?

Short answer: Not very. More a matter of groups talking to supporters and past one another rather than deliberating about anything much. Individuals may be even less engaged in rational deliberation if they’re being abusive online.

There are a number of reasons why ‘deliberative democracy’ (a recent talking point amongst centre-left academics) seems all too far from reality. Most of us don’t actually have much time to deliberate – it’s easier and quicker to stick to campaign slogans. Even the issue of whether young people are suffering with mental health because of work and social pressures divides on ideological lines which can then, of course, extend to being a stress coping mechanism in themselves. Another point is the suspicion and mistrust which pervades Western societies (probably most of the world indeed). No one is happy to debate and deliberate with people they don’t trust behind their backs.

The current trend to ‘strong man’ politicians riding on nationalistic or religious populisms is also not likely to help with any deliberation. Instead it’s the opposite – emotive appeals, image making, and keeping compromises more behind the scenes and away from the public stance. Back in the 1980s the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas tried to relocate rationality in debate and communication between people, instead of the individual reasoning ‘subject’ that worried the ‘postmodernists’. Sadly, the ideal communicative action remains all too often just that, an ideal.

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A straightforward mystery?

Of recent date consciousness has leapt into respectability as a topic for scientific research, despite still appearing to be the kind of mystery which leads some people to look for the transcendent. My own philosophical habit has been not to look for the transcendent in particular, but not to scorn it should it emerge from the mess we all make. So where my consciousness is concerned, I have no problem with the neuroscientists being able to map the activities in my brain accompanying my conscious states, and I suppose any deliberate actions I undertake while that goes on will give a little transcendence in the literal sense of ‘going beyond’.

At the same time, it never seemed to me strange that consciousness should develop – progressively indeed – in living organisms and that we should have it as well as inherited instinct. We are often told that instinctual (unconscious) response is rapid, but that is not the whole story. The New Scientist put the point when they suggest that consciousness (being aware of experience) helps us to learn quickly in a changing world. If I may, as a philosopher rather than scientist myself, offer a criticism, it is that many (not least atheists) forget about change and adaptation when talking about (or even studying) unconscious response and training. That is fine when things are not changing, and then natural selection will deal with slow, or even not so slow, change – still without calling consciousness into action. But the faster the change, and the more unpredictable it is, the more likely the organism will have to learn fast, i.e., within its own lifetime. We humans now set ourselves the challenge of learning new all the time and our poor conscious minds struggle desperately to cope. OK, that still leaves the mystery of exactly how the mush inside our heads actually generates conscious experience, but I suggest that explains simply why the mush needs that capability!

History tricks

Newly emergent Conservative politician Sam Gyimah tells us that if we are divorced from our history, we are divorced from ourselves. Standard conservative philosophy, and sounds very sensible. But does it produce some surprising results?

Claire Foges (also conservative, though not a politician) now complains about Comic Relief deciding not to feature ‘white saviours’ (white celebrities) in its fundraising appeals. But are the ‘politically correct’ campaigners more in touch with Tory ideas about history than she realises? The charities are, of course, watching their backs right now because of the recent abuse scandals. But they have deeper problems to address: in particular the claim that capitalism is already lifting the poor masses out of poverty and aid or charity programmes only get in the way, and the idea expressed by Gyimah that none of us can set aside our history, presumably including the unsavoury aspects thereof. That might imply that featuring white charity publicists merely glosses over the history of colonialism (or even current dependency), and should be rejected in favour of those culturally connected with charity recipients in poor parts of the world.

These issues are complex and it may be too soon to recognise PC campaigners, black and white alike, as emerging Conservatives (followers of Edmund Burke and Roger Scruton?), but who knows what history will come to say?

Orwell is not enough

Phil Collins in The Times is not the first person to appeal to the tradition of Orwell and Attlee on behalf of British patriotism for British workers, so to speak – on this occasion prompted by Corbyn’s hesitant response to the Skripal affair. Why can’t that tradition solve the Labour party’s problems?

There seems all the less problem because Putin’s regime is not socialist (doesn’t claim to be), but it is nasty and authoritarian. Yet even that is beside the point shown up by Corbyn’s position. The fears and frustrations of the educated Left who always distrusted patriotism – even from Labour politicians – are domestic in origin, and have little to do with the character of any perceived threats to British security from outside. At the same time, the university educated are now a far larger part of the Labour vote than they used to be, for instance when Orwell was writing. Collins makes the common mistake of assuming the attitude of (British Left) intellectuals that Orwell already protested against in the 1930s is due to hostility to the class system. Hostility to the popular press and its influence back to the Boer War may always have been more relevant. But still more troubling has been the inability of British social democrats since the 1940s to separate their patriotism from right-wing ideology. In particular, David Owen failed to escape coming over as Tory-lite with his support for the British nuclear deterrent, whilst present day critics of Corbyn’s position on defence may also have to avoid being UKIP-lite to boot.

The trap which ‘moderate’ social democrats seem unable to escape is completed by the fact that social democratic domestic policies will not assuage the shame (not guilt) many educated people feel about the past of racism, empire, the slave trade, and so on. But that is also a matter of our confused ethics, not security.

CBT Blues

Over my life I have had several bouts of counselling therapy, with varying results. Just one set was based on the now widely used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). I’m sure this would work well for many people, but it wasn’t a great success for me. Of course, now that I know at least some of my problems are neurological rather than psychological I have to expect that any psychotherapy will only take me so far.

In one sense, I do my own CBT in several ways: writing, cooperating with support services (both charities and social service provision), and listening to music. I’m not familiar with music therapy in general terms but I know music helps me when I feel lonely or depressed. What is more difficult is changing my habits that much, unless I gave up things like writing which help me anyway. Moreover, my depression bouts are often about the outside world – it’s my anxiety which tends to be more personal.

I was prompted to reflect on this by reading Stuart Schneiderman’s book Saving Face, and starting to work on a memoir of my own. I agree with Schneiderman that Freud neglected shame (rather than guilt) in his theories, but I have my worries about cognitive therapy being more effective if it works with shame and facing shame, as Schneiderman suggests. In view of the way shame prompts us to pursue status and conspicuous consumption, and the way women have been treated under its influence, I feel that might lead therapists into a Faustian bargain.

What’s wrong with transcendence?

I give the German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas full marks for raising openly the issue of The Future of Human Nature (his recent book). Indeed, leaving gene editing or modification to casual market preferences is dangerous, but do we trust officials or anyone else to regulate it for us? Where I don’t go with Habermas is when he said as long ago as the 1960s that consumption of mass media – then newspapers and TV – is atomistic and isolated. Even then, and before, the readerships and listeners tended to form partisan blocs (providing different markets for particular media operators) despite their physical separation. With the social media of today that is all the more extreme and even the physical separation of users may not apply, especially with children or use at work.

Mass and social media are an excellent example of social realities, frequently observed by Habermas himself, that show how social communication is all too often not a matter of rational debate and openness to good arguments. It has been said that Habermas maintained his theory about the necessity of ‘communicative action’ in the sense of openness to criticism and exchange, despite social realities like the mass media, as being a transcendent reality, inherent in communication – perhaps in a way analogous to the old Catholic idea of Natural Law.

To say the least after millennia of ideas built up on religious faith, Habermas is not the first person to develop transcendental arguments. Yet I plead that transcendental arguments based on claiming a transcendent reality are bad arguments, simply because they beg all the questions. Unless you can convert people who don’t believe the transcendent reality exists (or has any relevance for us?) to a faith beyond proof you are nowhere. Ironically, Habermas can then be forced into trying to shut down rational debate himself by appealing to an unchallengeable position.

What’s the matter with centrists?

A consistent source of frustration for a curmudgeonly old centrist like me is recurrent failures, lack of vision, and inability to connect with the public of those who supposedly stand for moderation and (whisper it) compromise around the world from Japan and Korea to Alabama to the Middle East. It is easy to complain about populist revolts within the West. Not so easy to reconcile anxieties about migration, communities, and culture wars with making peace. The European Union’s legalistic structure does not do well on inspiring popular loyalty.

For close on 70 years now the threat of nuclear annihilation has made many of us scared of tribal loyalties. But more recently menace is joined by bribe in the form of the global economy and communications soon to be reinforced with virtual cryptocurrencies which would almost certainly require international cooperation to regulate at all. (Organised criminals love all this.) There looks to be no prospect of the world’s feuding tribes, ethnic and ideological alike, being stopped by ‘moderates’ or weak and ill-judged appeals to rationality (whatever that means) or even human compassion for those caught in the crossfire. More likely, a global version of the classic Hobbesian and Schmittian solution to conflicts, where some ruthless bastard with the firepower (paid for with Bitcoin?) shuts everybody up. I don’t look forward to that, but I look forward to World War III even less.

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.