Monday, 29 August 2016

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Anyone who has read Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature might be under the impression that we live in the best age ever of mankind - the central message of the book is that we kill far less than we used to and than institutionally we're becoming better people. That, of course, is true, but it is also false. Not false in the sense that there was ever a golden age which we weren't born to see - older generations are very wrong about that just as we will be should we utter the same words to future generations - but false because to say today is better than the past does not mean that we live in the best of all possible worlds nor that this world is the way it had to be.

The lesson of history and the folly of the present is no better demonstrated than in a book from 1759 called Candide written by Voltaire. Candide is the lead character and was tutored by the genius Master Pangloss who taught him:

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles; therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hawn and to construct castles; therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten; therefore we eat pork all year round. And they who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."

The satire is easy to spot, but isn't it curious how parallels with today's world are easy to draw? Candide asks during the book when all manner of horrors happen to him - The Seven Years War, The 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, nearly being burnt to death:
"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
Like Candide, we see the unemployment, poverty, Human Rights' abuses, the domination over political life by the few, the war, the lack of a real start in life guaranteed by education, the short-sightedness, etc., etc. etc., but this is all there is and any suggestions at change, real (radical) change which threaten the continuation of the system which produces the above are met with the same response, to paraphrase Churchill:
"This is the worst of all systems, except for all the others."
We shouldn't be fooled or downhearted at the response - it is purposely made to quash any alternative; made to prevent any real change where it would need to happen to make any significant difference.  The replies may vary but the message is the same: there is no more than we already have. Any calls for equal pay, more pay, a bigger part of the pie for the workers that create wealth are met with the reply that companies can't afford it, the economy will collapse and unemployment will rise. These are not new ideas: in the cotton mills in the 1700s, cotton mill owners wrote to the government to say that paying children would ruin the economy; when it became necessary for women to join the workforce after WWI, men claimed it would ruin the economy; cotton plantation owners said they couldn't pay slaves because it would ruin the economy; business leaders say they couldn't pay women the same wage as men because it would ruin the economy; in 1998 when Labour introduced the minimum wage, businesses said it would ruin the economy.

This economy, the best of all systems, is always on the edge of ruin. But for who?

The message of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the obvious retort to such claims: income inequality for those at the bottom while those at the top, the famed 1%, grow richer whatever the conditions of the economy. But what we have is inevitable, the best of all systems and no changes can be made to it without there being a catastrophe that would ruin it for us all. So what to do? Here we should invoke Terry Eagleton:
"If you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was?” 
Dare governments to ruin the economy: pay more, pay far more, pay equally, it's working terribly so far.  

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Stop Using Quotes

I'm rather partial to the odd (read: many a) quote, as you may have noticed. They're handy to demonstrate a point and easy to remember. They're also pretty dangerous. They're also almost borderline arrogant and can't live up to what they purport to achieve. I am saying this as someone who can quote like a champ and has several books of notes about the books I have read, which contain simple quotes.

"You get what you pay for."
"The best things in life are free."

"Everything happens for a reason."
"There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives."

The two sets of quotes are contradictions but are not uncommon and people trot them out as they pass for 'wisdom', but the precise problem with them is they can be used to prove anything; there is a quote for absolutely anything, but really show nothing; a quote, instead of illuminating a subject, hints at what is at the core without shedding any light on the details. By using quotes which pass as wisdom, we infantilise a subject and use it as an ersatz for proper thought and investigation. 

As someone who uses quotes, I try or try to hint at the content of a post, use the message of the quote to show something in a new light or make a point based on surrounding content. I try. I may not always be successful, but a quote without discussion, investigation, other information or detail is a miscarriage in understanding the human condition. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Authenticity of Free Market Capitalism

In England there's a huge aversion to any suggestion that the government can play a role in the economy which is more or less mirrored in varying degrees in the West, with America being the most allergic to any hint of government's not-so-invisible hand. The underlying premise in all this is that competition, in the form of markets, regulate themselves and what's best need not be a decision made in a government ministry but the logic of business, customers making decisions and there being no barriers to trade or foreign investment.

These policies will sound familiar to anyone who knows of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, but the ideas themselves come from economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The latter was central to what has become known as "Miracle of Chile" in which free markets made Chile an economic success story and a poster boy for a free market economy, much like Singapore is today. 

Should the successes of these free market utopias be tempered? I was listening to a very ideological debate on LBC a few weeks ago in the very early hours of the morning when Jeremy Corbyn's name cropped up and a supporter of his phoned the show. According to the caller, the Labour Party, which Corbyn is now the leader, had to back the old leftist and Corbyn was the answer to much of Britain's maladies. Labour under their former leader, Ed Miliband, should have been more left which is why he didn't win the election. The show's host replied several times that Britain had, unbeknownst I believe to much of the country, 'already tried socialism and it didn't work.' He later said that he wished Thatcher's policies had been implemented properly and more of them. The parallel between to the two ideological positions can't have escaped many: the more authentic, real, pure and dogmatic we are to a set of ideas, the more likely they are to succeed. Anyone who believes they weren't saying the same thing in the USSR is deluding themselves. Not only did the left-wing caller show himself to be an ideologue par excellence, so did the show's host and yet they'll have both believed the other to be an ideological idiot and believe themselves to be totally different. Our obsession with authenticity is a particular Western condition. 

Back to the question above: how could Thatcher have been more authentic in her implementation of free market ideas, as the host suggested? As Thatcher herself conceded in a letter to Friedman about Chile, making the UK an exact replica wasn't possible precisely because Pinochet was a dictator who committed over 300 human rights' violations and the democratic institutions in the UK got in the way of all that. Friedman, who was Pinochet's, Reagan's and Thatcher's advisor, is said to have been against such a set up, however, Hayek, the man credited with creating neoliberal ideas wrote in his book The Road to Serfdom which focused on economic freedom and the government's removal from the equation (except for a role in preventing fraud, deforestation and the production of harmful substances and noise, limiting working hours and ensuring health and safety). In such a removal, Hayek separated liberalism from democracy, claiming 'although compatible, they are not the same.' Hayek doesn't call for the end of democracy per se, but splits freedoms into 'positive' and 'negative' categories. The 'negative' category, which Hayek focused on, concerned the non-interference from the government but in such a way that - from the neoliberal perspective - 'even if I live under a dictatorship, I am free' (3.2 Republican Liberty). 

There's a logical junction reached in implementing free market ideas, at least with evidence found in Chile and the ideas surrounding a democratic future. But what of Singapore, a neoliberal wet dream, does it stack up? This article is gushing in its praise of low taxes, performance-related pay and just how rich it is without having any oil or being a tax haven. Singapore is a dictatorship - the government has won every election since 1959 (putting dictators like Lukashenko and Mugabe to shame in terms of longevity) -, and owns at least 76.2% of all the land in the country - which grew from 31% in 1949 - and can acquire land whenever it desires in order to pursue developmental projects. 85% of housing is also owned by the government's housing ministry and 22% of GDP comes from government-owned enterprises like Singapore Airlines, while the world average is actually 9%. According to Cambridge Economist Ha-Joon Chang, no one single idea explains Singapore's success, 'combines extreme elements of capitalism and socialism.'

The truth is, when looking for examples of what Thatcher could have done to make the free market dream come true in Britain and seal the neoliberal deal, it's hard to find examples that live up to the billing. It wouldn't be right if I left without mentioning Hong Kong, 'the world's freest economy'. However, this article from 2010 in the Economist ('End of the Experiment') laments the idea that Hong Kong was about to introduce a minimum wage - it did in 2011 finally and was raised again in 2015 - a measure taken to try and address Hong Kong's gross disparity between rich and poor (though it is less than in Singapore). 50% of people in Hong Kong live in government subsidised housing - compared to 10% in the UK (if the sector can be called "subsidised" at all) - hardly free market - and the government also run the local underground and block foreign investment to areas of the economy like supermarkets while owning both the supermarkets allowed to operate in the sector. 

To call any country in the world, seemingly, free market would be disingenuous. No country operates without government intervention, involvement and, to use a term Hayek despised, planning. To believe, as the Economist seem to, that certain things like addressing income disparity is a catastrophe is shocking and should be robustly challenged. The real threat that neoliberalism poses is not only a threat to democracy on the one hand - first with the shrinking of institutions -, but secondly, and more perniciously, with the misguided rhetoric that all we need is more: more privatisation, more negative freedom, more restrictions on government. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

An Alternative to Human Kindness (because it doesn't work)

Human kindness is a much overlooked sentiment. Most people will dislike you if you're not kind and a mean character is rarely the star in a film or book, perhaps save the Grinch. However, Ebenezer Scrooge is far more well-known and his name has become synonymous with being miserly.

The problem, of course, with being 'kind' is it is entirely dependent on circumstance. In an interesting experiment on children at a religious school this was highlighted in the most ingenuous of ways. Two separate groups performed the same activity: they were told the parable of the Good Samaritan and then let go in order to attend a church service. Both groups on their way passed a homeless man but only one of the groups stopped to help him. Why? If there ever was a situation when a group of people might be expected to help someone in need, it would indeed be a religious one after having been reminded of the Good Samaritan. The answer is both simple and no less astonishing. The first group, the one that helped the homelessness man, were on time for their church service while the second group, the group that appeared not to even notice the man, were late. The teacher had let them go five minutes later. The difference between being 'kind' and not was five minutes.

This might go against everything we think of as 'kind' or 'mean'. We tend to use the word as a permanent adjective - Scrooge was mean - we didn't say 'In the parts we saw of A Christmas Carol Scrooge wasn't very nice.' Likewise, by the end of the story, a miraculous conversion happens and Scrooge is 'kind' and has ceased to be a scrooge. But we would be hard pressed to call the group of children from the religious school 'mean' or 'selfish'. In fact, the whole idea of religion is to see people as generally good but they are at the same time prone to fall short of the standards they set themselves and of their teachings. Religion tells us that people act in ways that they themselves are ashamed of but that these acts are temporary lapses, if we combine with the finding above, are often dependent on conditions that are entirely circumstantial.

This turn of an idea has very real consequences, not only in how we think about people's actions - i.e. what would make you kill/ steal/ ignore someone in need/ go against everything you thought you believed in? - but additionally in how we might go about changing the conditions for success or failure in life so as not to rely on human kindness alone.

The above demonstrates how fickle it is to be kind. In truth, kindness isn't and can never be enough. An entire population of kind people would still have moments of meanness and we would still say things that would hurt people and maybe even do things that would kill others. This was no better shown than the media war that went on over the migrants that flocked to Europe earlier this year. The war of words was fought between those who wanted to let the migrants in either en masse or distribute them around EU Member States, or to put up walls and fences and deport them all. Depending on your perspective, Europe was facing an migrant crisis, - 'they're here to destroy us all, we can't sustain our way of life with these savages' - or the migrants were facing a European crisis - 'we're undermining European values of tolerance and acceptance, we have to show the world how European we really are.'. We cannot, however, say that the fences and walls built in Hungary or Greece are a symbol of European racism despite the rhetoric of European figure such as Viktor Orbán that are entirely racist - this would be to attack the symptom rather than the cause. Similarly, one is reminded of adage for idiots that communism failed because people weren't kind enough.

All of the above leads us to a different solution. The answer to the problem of kindness - or momentary lack thereof - and to racism is not drum up hysteria or to rally for an orgy of goodness because this will inevitably run out. The only way to ensure people don't have to be kind is equality, not in the same vein as kindness, but legally. Women around the world are still fighting for equality, people are still fighting for a fair wage for their labour and paid holiday, people still don't have universal access to health care around the world. The rights we do have were never given to us by the benevolent rulers at the top, they were often fought for and then enshrined in law. The only way to deal with migrants or homelessness or any problem is to create laws which take kindness out of the equation. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ritual is Everything: Lilypad and Marshmallow

"Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Beckett.

I love the above quote because I fail a lot. As a teacher I am also borderline delusional: I believe if I think enough about how to achieve something I can do it, even if my attempt has just fallen flat on its face. All I need to do is go away and think of ways of getting the result I didn't achieve the first time with an activity. Maybe there was a problem I didn't think of before the first effort, maybe I made it too hard/ easy, maybe the focus of the activity was wrong, maybe the pairings/ groups weren't right in the class, maybe the students gave great feedback and it's worth doing again, maybe it needs more/ less teacher input, maybe a stage needs to be dropped/ added or maybe the whole task needs to be dumped and I need to read more about how others achieve this goal.

However, as much as I love the quote, it doesn't tell the whole truth. The truth might be something more like: Try. Fail. Make coffee and get chocolate. Try again. Fail again. Lose hope. Make dinner. Think. Try again. Fail again. Find inspiration. Have a haircut. Wear my favourite shirt. Panic. Try again. Fail less. Smile. Take a walk. Try again. Fail a bit less. Fail better.

Suffice to say a lot more goes on between stages that we ignore in life and it turns out, these stages are equally important and absurd. In How I Met Your Mother, Lily and Marshal (pictured) have a tradition whereby Lily brings back a six-pack of beer when she returns from a trip. One day, after many years of doing the same thing, both decide to end the tradition. As the day of Lily's return comes around, both her and Marshal are hit with doubt and go back on their promise to end the "silly" tradition. It's importance looms over them larger than they both could have expected. The twist comes when Marshal doesn't just surprise Lily by meeting her at the airport as she walks into arrivals with a six-pack, he does so with a marching band only to realise that he now has to bring a marching band each time Lily returns.

These "silly" little things in life are what create the very fabric of our experience and without it things would simply lose all their meaning. The ritual itself becomes the immanent part of a wider tradition that carries so much of what we hold dear that without it a large hole would appear in our experience of it. This is the reality that Lily and Marshal experienced in HIMYM.

On a grander scale we have ceremonies like that of the Klu Klux Klan's naturalisation ritual where those wanting to join are blindfolded and "initiated". Similarly, the robes, the crosses and the burning torches are part of the same ritual that are as much about being a part of the KKK as the daily experience of being a member. Without the ritual, the process of "becoming" a member of the KKK, simply "being a member" would lose the essence of what it is to be a member. Likewise, baptism and collective mass become the rituals by which we "feel" a part of a community. On a smaller scale, seeing in New Year by eating twelve grapes after a family meal and wearing red underwear with loved ones is a ritual than makes New Year what it is for Spaniards. Without that ceremony, and without something that might replace it, events and time fail to be what they might have been as if something deeply intrinsic was taken from us.

An important characteristic is that from the outside these are absurd and unnecessary and people often laugh and mock, while the participants take them with the utmost seriousness. "Pyjama Sunday movie night" with a partner, pet names or your pre-bed routine may cause much merriment to those who find out about it, and cause you untold amounts of embarrassment, but these form the experiences that we hold dear to life. The effect of your partner making plans on a Sunday evening, not calling you "Sergeant Snuggles" or reading you a story before bed would leave a hole much bigger in our experience of the world than we'd ever care to admit. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Language ('I love you', a lion and Wittgenstein)

Language. It's understood the world over to be self-evident. We use it daily, we make sentences and communicate. It is a part of us and it is impossible to imagine ourselves without it. However, language is far more complicated than all of that, even our own, and to understand ourselves and language we must first try to learn a foreign language.

Foreign languages magnify the gaps between language and ourselves in very distinct ways. Recently I have had two discussions with students - both Romance-language native-speakers - who took aim at the English term: I love you. 'How can this one term really convey how I feel?', they exclaimed. In their two respective languages love is divided into two categories: familial/ brotherly love and love for a partner. In English context is key and context can kill you. A Portuguese comedian said last year that English and French were 'barbaric languages' because they fail to distinguish between ser and estar which become just be and être respectively. The comedian made the point thus:
how is it possible to live without distinguishing between ser and estar?
It's dramatic but language anchors us and our view of the world and not being able to transmit the precise meaning we wish to impart can be quite alienating.

This is precisely a Wittgensteinian problem. Those two students who found I love you problematic and the Portuguese comedian who can't live without ser and estar can relate to Wittgenstein's thought: the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

But perhaps more illustrative of the problem at the heart of language is Wittgenstein's lesser known quip of: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him (Philosophical Investigations, p.223). Wittgenstein's point is quite clear: we would never be able to put ourselves in the lion's position to be able to understand what he wanted to say, even if we spoke Lionese or the lion spoke our language. The reverse, though, can also be true: the lion would never be able to make himself understood. This is the essential problem with how we think about language.

The students, so imbibed with their ideas of love, fail to consider what they lack with their own concepts. Japanese, for example, far beyond the binary brotherly and romantic love, has at least six ways to define love. Greek famously has at least four and Ancient Greek had six. Likewise, the Portuguese comedian lives by ser and estar, but other languages, such as Yahgan, take the aspectual nature of 'be' even further in ways Portuguese and Spanish do very well without, but would render Yahgan speakers perplexed at their inability to say what they really mean.

The story behind the lion isn't that we get along with what we have - the standard linguistic line that all languages serve their speakers sufficiently - the above points to something more personal that we're given a glimpse of through foreign languages and our learning of them, but in fact pertain to ourselves and our first language: we don't know what we can't say. The limits of our language limit us to understand the world through what we have and we live unaware of what we can't say and thus what we cannot know and experience. This doesn't begin and end with love or be or how we sit and stand, but to the very nature of freedom. As Slavoj Zizek wrote in Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Spiritual, but not Religious: "I believe but not in the Church."

Recently I was once again confronted with an ever more prevalent religious position: I believe in God, but not the Church.

As ever, my question is simple: what does this mean?

Is the position as follows: I believe that God created everything, that men and women were created in God's image. I believe that He sent his son to rid us of our sins and for that we have to be thankful. I believe He has a plan and we are a part of that plan. He knows all. We are unknowing and have to accept there will be apparent injustice within a more just higher order. Everything on Earth was created by God and everything scientists find out was created and put there by God.

Is this how people believe in God and not in the Church? This, as you may have gathered, is precisely the position of the Church. It is an interesting juncture, if the narratives do match, by where those who believe in a so-called celestial dictator claim to hold as true the same story about His (or Her?) nature and being but reject the institution that is responsible for the narrative.

There are arguments against this interpretation: God exists irrespective of the Church, if you believe in God, and therefore the narrative doesn't belong to anyone. Religion is increasingly, like society, seen as a private affair - maybe due to the lessening grip any religious institution can expect to have over a government in a modern, increasingly "secular" society. This is, not so radically, the position of the Pope himself who claimed that spirituality was more important than being religious and that nature can take the place of the Church.

Aren't there other forces at play here, however? What's the effect of distancing from the Church? Not a lot. The Church's problem is one of publicity. It's a corrupt, unpopular, scandal provoking, paedophile ridden institution which makes demands on young people's lives that they are unwilling to consider - abstinence from sex before marriage, traditional gender roles which subjugate women to second-class citizens, to believe that they have sinned by the very nature of their birth, to believe they have sinned just by following their desires and to believe in the higher authority of a living person because an institution has given them a job. That is not to mention an out-dated view on same sex couples which many young people grow up thinking as normal.

What then will be the future of the Church? Despite the Church's lack of popularity, it will not go away because it still holds power, though perhaps not in the traditional sense of holding heads of state/ government, etc. Even though believers seek to detach themselves from the official narrative by believing in exactly the same thing, the Church is validated through the story it tells, the experience that religious people share and the bond this creates surrounding identity. The new trinity of believing non-believers could become a new lifeblood of the Church itself, not through out-dated calls to modernise which have long fallen on deaf ears, but by a regression to more "essential", "authentic" religious message stripped of any demands on life in a capitalist society, but rooted in "live your dreams", "be judged only by God" and "let no-one be responsible for you except yourself and God".

It should be clear that though there are calls for the Pope to be more cool, to be a Marxist that likes gays and loves protected sex, the Church regains its power through capitalism's need of a higher power that regulates the world - or the illusion thereof. The idea of a final judgement, a bigger plan and no guilt on Earth is powerful and works more powerfully in reverse: what if there is no final judgement, no bigger plan and guilt on Earth? The very move away from the Church, the individuality of belief in secular society strengthens the Church's narrative as the necessary anchor to everyday life. A belief in the Church's version of events, parred back to an essential belief in God, makes a life of sin bearable exactly as it did for the farmer whose crop had failed.

Is there another twist in events? We inhibit a society in which believing too much singles you out as a fanatic. The move away from the Church creates an illusion of rationality that may put the Church as the de facto power of belief while presenting it as its ersatz. Before it was reasonable to attend Church every Sunday and confess that you are doing wrong in the eyes of God. Now God confers your sins by postponing your confession until after you have followed your dream. The belief in God, a tacit acceptance of what the Church says, makes a life of pleasure more all the more satisfying when looked at from our hedonistic perspective that goes beyond an empty alternative. That is, a belief in God functions as a reaction to and acts as a supplement to our enjoyment: the idea that without the belief in God, away from the demands of the Church on our lifestyles, the travelling, the sex, the work and our positions in society are for a higher purpose.