Tag Archives: politics

John Gray on ‘Progressivism’ and Why Labour Lost

Philosopher, writer and critic of Progressivism and Labour, John Gray, being 'photobombed' at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
‘Bombing’ John Gray. Photo: Sandra Wilson

I admire John Gray and his somewhat cynical writing on political philosophy. Having heard him speak and briefly spoken to him he is evidently a man of erudition and humanity. But when he writes on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour’s election defeat in his January New Statesman essay ‘Why the left keeps losing’ something seems to have gone wrong. If one of his students had presented this to him a few years ago for assessment, it is difficult to imagine that it would have passed muster as an example of effective reasoning.

Gray’s Attack on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour

John has shifted the focus of his recent attacks on ‘liberalism’ to something that seems broader and vaguer: ‘progressivism’. It’s never entirely clear what defines this evil for him, but apparently British institutions outside government, including schools and universities, are its vehicles. ‘Progressivism’ can evidently encompass both ‘liberal centrism’ and ‘Corbynite leftism’ in the Labour Party.

One immediately feels some contradiction here and this sensation is magnified when it Professor Gray accuses these institutions and their ideology or ideologies of the idea that ‘the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world’. Indeed, they apparently believe that ‘the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked’. Do the British establishment and ‘millions of graduates’ really will the destruction of their own society and values, or has John found himself an enormous straw man to set alight?

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Coronavirus Update 20/03/2020

Current Trends in the UK and the US

More or less as I was posting my previous piece, the UK government was publicly rolling back on the idea that the aim of ‘herd immunity’ was the optimal strategy in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic. At the same time it published the scenario modelling of the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, which contained the following passage.

In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict [under a mitigation strategy] there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US. In the UK, this conclusion has only been reached in the last few days, with the refinement of estimates of likely ICU demand due to COVID-19 based on experience in Italy and the UK (previous planning estimates assumed half the demand now estimated) and with the NHS providing increasing certainty around the limits of hospital surge capacity.

Yet, as I described in my previous post, a figure in the region of 250,000 deaths could have been reached by somewhat simpler calculation.

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Should Labour Represent the Working Class?

Electoral Map of 2019 UK Election
Electoral Map of 2019 UK Election – from inews

The media, social and otherwise is now rife with analyses (my own included) of why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly, and what the Party should do about it. A common theme revolves around the loss of ‘traditional working class’ seats in the English North and Midlands, and how Labour has moved away from their ‘socially conservative’ and ‘communitarian’ values. These values evidently led many of these constituencies to vote in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, which further alienated some of their voters from Labour’s soft Brexit and second referendum stance. If this analysis is correct it leads to some serious soul-searching within the Labour Party.

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Labour Must Not Reverse on Policy

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader (Image from the Press Gazette – Joe Giddens/PA)

So there we have it. The polls were right, and produced the electoral results that could have been anticipated from them. To the extent that is a surprise it is only because of the unexpected result of the 2017 election and the rarely-fulfilled dream of some substantial tactical voting. Of course Scotland is a rather different story, and one that looks likely to run and run.

As far as England is concerned, Labour seem to have been caught in a Brexit trap – divided both within and without by the either/or nature of the question. It could neither fully embrace what was always primarily a right-wing nihilist project, nor fully reject a referendum result that was backed by many in ‘working class Labour heartlands’ – irrespective of which side actual Labour voters had supported in that referendum. At least the Conservative majority gives that issue some clarity; whatever Brexit brings over the next five years – and it is unlikely to be anything particularly good – it will be entirely at the doors of Boris Johnson (if he survives without terminal scandal) and the Tories.

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Two Cheers for Liberalism

Be Careful What You Wish For (General Franco, Spanish Dictator 1939-1975. See page for author [CC0])

Reaction to modern liberal society has apparently been treated as akin to ‘the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism’. If you make that claim and end by stating ‘[W]e do well to remind our fellow citizens [that] Man [sic] is made for more than this world, and his [sic] final destiny is in the hands of the Almighty’ you might be thought to have given up your own cause. But let us be charitable and (overlooking the implicit sexism) acknowledge that we must accept our ignorance of the universe’s final ends and live only according to the little that we can know.

Sohrab Ahmari’s essay on ‘The New American Right’ in First Things attempts to lay a philosophical base for what he calls ‘Post-Fusionist Conservatism’, but which elsewhere has been referred to as ‘Post-Liberalism’ and in the UK flies under the banners of ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Toryism’, associated with Maurice Glasman and Phillip Blond respectively. The basic premise is that ‘liberalism’, in both its social guise and economic guise has precipitated a society that is ‘fragmented, atomized and morally disoriented’, and in consequence ‘we need a politics of limits, not of individual autonomy and deregulation’.

Ahmari’s call for ‘a public square reoriented to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good’, is commendable, but leaves open the question of what and whose ‘Highest Good’ is to be sought. Without revealed truth (and a single revealed truth at that) this can only be speculative. The unique selling point of liberalism is that it recognises this and so seeks to maximise the options for everyone, individually or collectively, to seek and to find their own Highest Good. Ahmari characterises ‘progressive liberalism’ as wishing to ‘raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximising norms’, while ‘conservative liberalism’ recognises ‘the need for some limits’. He rejects both, arguing that ‘freedom requires a moral and religious horizon…in the state and the political community’. But this is to bring the subjective and the metaphysical into the objective and empirical; ‘[m]illennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation’ are no better than ‘old prejudices’ when they lack any empirical foundation or basis in common experience of the world.

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Trump in Scotland – Let’s Protest for Mary

Mary Anne Macleod Trump in 1935. By Source, <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Anne_Trump.jpg" title="Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Mary Anne MacLeod Trump">Fair use</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52325059">Link</a>
Mary Anne Macleod Trump in 1935. By Source, Fair use, Link

Donald Trump is coming to Scotland. He claims a special link to this country due to his Lewiswoman mother, Mary Anne Macleod. How should we respond to his visit – is it really an unacceptable violation of our liberal democratic culture for this American President to visit the UK and Scotland in particular? Is it right to think we should protest against him?

Trump is a unique figure among – modern at any rate – US Presidents. He pays no lip-service whatsoever to the norms of civility, respect, presidential communications and policy-making that have generally been accepted by holders of the office in living (and earlier) memory. He is a man with a reputation for dubious moral conduct, shoddy business practices and multiple bankruptcies. In setting up ‘Trump University’ he was guilty of outright fraud, for which he was required to pay a $25 million legal settlement. Continue reading Trump in Scotland – Let’s Protest for Mary

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Brexit Endgames

Chequers - photo by Stephen Simpson (Public Domain)
Chequers – photo by Stephen Simpson (Public Domain)

Today Theresa May’s Cabinet are meeting at Chequers (the UK Prime Minister’s out-of-town residence) in an attempt to thrash out a final Brexit negotiating position with the European Union. As they do so, the biggest threat to Brexit seems not to be a realisation of its purposelessness, although that will surely come soon enough, but the process difficulty. This difficulty is entailed by a government reliant for its parliamentary majority on Northern Irish members who as extreme Unionists will not accept any further differentiation between rules and regulations applying between the UK mainland and their own country, as well as on extreme Brexiteers who will not stomach any residual taint of the EU single market and customs union. This sets up an irreconcilable clash with the EU’s shared commitment with its member, Ireland, who are adamantly opposed to any agreed additional barriers between the north and south parts of the island.[1] This opposition is both a matter of historical principle, as well as a practical concern over a reinstated ‘hard’ border being a focus for re-emerging intercommunity violence. Indeed Ireland and the EU both believe, a belief that implicitly is currently shared by the UK government, that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 commits all involved parties to the status quo in regard to the Irish border. Continue reading Brexit Endgames

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The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 2

The Path to Brexit

David Cameron: Hapless Architect of Brexit (Apex via Daily Mirror)
David Cameron: Hapless Architect of Brexit (Apex via Daily Mirror)

At the root of the ‘Brexit’ mess is a possibly unprecedented act of self-serving recklessness by the leader of a government in a democracy. It is in large part one which lays bare the sham of the UK’s primary democratic process – its system for electing representatives to its governing Parliament. For some years the electoral prospects and the cohesion of the UK Conservative party have been threatened by a relatively small, but vociferous and unscrupulous cabal of individuals and groups opposed to the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation with other European countries – either because it was a proxy for a mixing of UK (read English) ‘culture’ with that of ‘foreigners’ of different ethnic or religious identity or it was a plutocratic rejection of the co-operation for setting anti-exploitation rules as a basis for national and economic competition, or in quite a few cases – both.

In the winner-takes-all electoral system created by First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) the leaking of Conservative Party support (and even Parliamentary personnel) toward the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage was not an incremental risk but an existential one. The party risked being out of power perhaps indefinitely and even being reduced to a rump of MPs with little compensatory chance of UKIP allies, as the right of centre vote became split, allowing more EU-friendly left of centre parties to dominate. The Conservative Party, having little in the way of clear principles or ideas to bind it, requires the prospect of power and career advancement above all else to unite its members – particularly its Parliamentary contingent.[1] Continue reading The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 2

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The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 1

This is the first of three blog posts examining the past, present and future of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

The Role and Nature of the European Union

Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum)
Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum)

The great divide in politics (and perhaps human affairs in general) is between co-operation and competition – whether between individuals, businesses or countries. The role of co-operation is to pool decision-making for a greater shared benefit, including the benefit of avoiding foreseeable future conflicts. The role of competition is to pit resources, techniques and organisational structures against each other to find the ones that work best. The degree to which one or other is favoured – even to the extent of fetishisation – tends to define political outlooks.

There are two main arguments for the pre-eminence of co-operation, all else equal. Firstly, it is potentially less wasteful – all resources, techniques and structures are focussed on common goals, whereas under competition the losing approaches may have consumed much with little useable output. Secondly any worthwhile competition requires a co-operative base – to determine the winning criteria, and to set the framework of rules that makes the result meaningful. (Note that this latter even applies to the ultimate competitive scenario – that of war; conventions generally exist to avoid the destruction of the civilisations and the planet that are being fought over.) Continue reading The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 1

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Harry Frankfurt Gets It Wrong On Inequality

Protesters against the impact of wealth on American politics - New York City 2015
Protesters against the impact of wealth on American politics – New York City 2015 ©www.diarmidweirphotography.co.uk

The eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt has issued a small book comprising parts of two essays written some decades ago (On Equality, 2015, Princeton University Press). The stimulus to this publication is the recent work of Thomas Piketty on economic inequality in the developed countries, and Frankfurt’s view that

It is, I believe, of some considerable importance to get clear about these matters. Appreciating the inherent moral innocence of economic inequality leads to an understanding that it is misguided to endorse economic egalitarianism as an authentic moral ideal. Further, it facilitates recognition of why it may actually be harmful to regard economic equality as being, in itself, a morally important goal.

We will see however, that Frankfurt strips the concept of ‘economic inequality’ so bare as to render it meaningless more or less by definition, and that what he does regard as important inevitably brings us back to economic inequality as a highly significant issue as it manifests in the real world. Continue reading Harry Frankfurt Gets It Wrong On Inequality

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