“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

24 May 2013

Should We Try to Create a Rational Society?



Should we try to create a rational society?

It may seem obvious that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, since being rational is almost by definition a good thing. If being rational is good, then it is logical that we should want a rational society because that would mean a good society; therefore it would be a good thing for us to try to make that society come about.

However, when we start to unpick the different words in the question we quickly run into difficulty.

Let’s start with ‘society’.

Society is composed of a great number of different elements without which it wouldn’t be society; or rather it wouldn’t be this society. The idea that all of those different elements should form a rational whole and that we are capable of bringing it about is a major claim.

But saying that we should try to create this rational whole from present society (the elements of which are constantly changing, for example by immigration and emigration), is an even greater claim. Do we have the power to do this? And are we certain this power will achieve its rational ends without making things worse – something we might or might not become aware of?

Intervening to create a new society out of an old society entails a great deal of confidence that by our actions we can change all the elements for the better. There is something quite God-like in this idea.

So should we try to do it?

Firstly, who is we? Are we the whole people – the society itself – looking to change itself through calculated intervention? Or are we talking about the Government and related institutions like charities? Are we really talking about an elite claiming complete understanding and power to change things for the better through action on others without them having hardly a say in the matter?

Lastly, we can ask, what is rationality? Who are we to know what is ultimately rational? How do we know we have taken everything into account and made correct decisions on everything?

Amongst the reading I have done recently, both Karl Popper and Chantal Mouffe offer some interesting thoughts on this sort of debate.

Neither Popper nor Mouffe argue that we should refrain from trying to make things better in our world, through individual, group and government action.

They do however caution that we can ever be completely confident that what we are doing is for the best. In social and political life, Popper in his writings argued for ‘piecemeal social engineering’ (Popper was a great phrase-maker, but this wasn’t one of his best) and a ‘critical rationalism’ that monitors practical initiatives for unintended consequences.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper wrote:

“The political demand for piecemeal (as opposed to Utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values – our preferences regarding music, for example ...This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the ‘agenda’ of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as a ’non-agenda’, and should be left to the realm of laissez-faire. Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.”

Mouffe meanwhile advocates what she calls ‘agonism’ (basically an acceptance of conflict). In her little book On the Political, she said:

“It is not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow those conflicts to take an agonistic form. This is why the defence and the radicalization of the democratic project require acknowledging the political in its antagonistic dimension and abandoning the dream of a reconciled world that would have overcome power, sovereignty and hegemony.”

This dream of a reconciled world is a Utopian dream that has been expressed in totalitarian regimes the world over through the 20th Century in particular.

But now, especially on the Left, we should be wary about the claims we make for our favoured plans and policies. We should accept criticism of them and be prepared to abandon them if and when they are shown to have significant negative consequences.  This is surely the best way to ‘create’ a better world – by being conscious of our limited and problematic powers of creation, and by being open-minded that our ideas can never be perfect or completely rational.

21 May 2013

Gay Marriage and the Two Different Meanings of Right and Wrong



When someone tells you: “I am right, and you are wrong,” what are they talking about?

Do they mean that they are speaking truth while you are saying things that are not true? Or are they claiming they are doing the right thing while you are doing something wrong?

On one hand we have right and wrong as truth and untruth, for example: ‘Barack Obama is President of the United States’, or ‘The Labour Party forms the Government of the United Kingdom’.

On the other hand we have right and wrong as judgement. Whether moralistic or practical, this makes claims over what is good and bad; for example: ‘Immigration benefits Britain’ or ‘Gay marriage is wrong’.

Sometimes these two meanings overlap, but for the most part they are two completely different conceptions. However we tend to use them interchangeably, mixing them up and confusing them in the process.

Gay marriage and immigration are interesting topics on many levels, not least for the way that strongly-held views on them from many (especially older and more traditionally-minded) people are routinely derided as ‘wrong’ by a great swathe of liberal-left opinion.

But in what way are these people ‘wrong’? Does it make sense for them to be described this way? And does it make sense for those on the conservative side to talk about immigration and gay marriage as wrong?

What we can safely say is that people make these judgements of right and wrong all the time.

However I find it problematic when we attack those judgements and opinions from the other standpoint of right and wrong, as truth and untruth.

I have seen a lot of articles and comments from liberal-lefty types expressing incredulity at small ‘c’ conservative opinion on gay marriage and immigration for example, using statistical ‘evidence’ and 'logic' to back up their case. This is fine to an extent – but these arguments generally miss the main point by failing to engage with the importance of meaning.

Many of those opposing gay marriage, for example on religious grounds, see marriage as a union between man and woman. On what basis can we justifiably claim they are wrong to do that? By saying they are being illogical we are effectively saying that their core beliefs are illegitimate and making some rather authoritarian claims about the primacy of our own views and that logic itself  somehow justifies them.

Logic and evidence are not moral arbiters though. Deciding on moral issues remains a role for human beings.

The forthcoming changes are redefining the meaning of marriage, which is an important institution in our society. We may like that change, but we should accept and respect those for whom it is a troubling change to something they hold dear.

I myself do not hold a strong opinion on gay marriage, but I certainly have nothing against it and can see how it will bring great joy to many gay couples who wish to mark their love by getting married.

What I do hold a strong opinion on is the way that many proponents use it as a stick to beat those who are opposed (as indeed some who are opposed use it as a stick to beat the liberal-left).  I think doing this is wrong.

There is no ultimate reason or justification for gay couples being allowed to ‘marry’ each other. But then there is no ultimate reason why they shouldn’t.

What we are seeing with the legalisation of gay ‘marriage’ is a changing of meaning and through this a representation of how social power is shifting.  

Lately I have been reading the book On the Political by the left-leaning political theorist Chantal Mouffe. One of Mouffe’s many qualities is that she is willing to learn from and invoke the more acute among conservative writers.

 In On the Political she quotes Carl Schmitt, who wrote in 1988, 

“One of the most important manifestations of humanity’s legal and spiritual life is the fact that whoever has true power is able to determine the content of concepts and words.”

This is what has happened with the concept of marriage – the meaning and content of it is getting changed, reflecting the transfer of social power from old to new: a new hegemony of sorts.

It is precisely what the democratic system is for. As Mouffe explains, democracy is not ultimately about finding a ‘rational consensus’ of what is right and wrong, but about the people deciding what they want to do.

Bringing in gay marriage is what our elected representatives are doing on our behalf: it is democracy in action.

But let’s not go condemning those who are opposed by claiming that we are ultimately ‘right’. Gay marriage will soon be ‘right’ in the other sense, as truth, on account of democratic decision – and that is surely enough.

4 May 2013

Frank Field: some home truths on Labour’s ‘equalities agenda’?



On Thursday 2nd May, The Spectator published a fascinating interview conducted by Isabel Hardman with Frank Field in which Field ranged freely and controversially across subjects including welfare, immigration and the EU, the ‘Living Wage’, his role advising the current Government – and unions (“We won’t win the election because of the unions, we’ll win it in spite of them”).

Field talked of personalities, including Gordon Brown (who “never really understood anything, let alone the economy”), Ed Miliband (“should just take a few more risks”) and Jon Cruddas (who “has got the job of saving us”).

He also made some barbed comments about Labour’s loss of working class women voters, linking it explicitly to the “equalities agenda” pursued by the party under the aegis of deputy leader Harriet Harman – something which I have been critical about here and elsewhere.

Field said:

“Why has our vote collapsed amongst working class women? Because they do not relate to the equalities agenda the Labour party pushes.

“We could just start by saying what I’ve said and apologise for what we’ve done for that group up to now. I mean, our vote has almost collapsed amongst this group. It used to be one of our biggest groups. What the hell do these focus groups tell us or are they so snapshot that they don’t look over time about where we have steered the party?”


As I said in On Patriarchy (Part 2), I question whether Labour is capable of tackling these issues in its internal research, precisely because of the intellectual and material investments that have been made in the equalities agenda. Any results suggesting negative consequences as Field suggests would put the reputations and careers of powerful people on the line and throw what is a highly convoluted system of quotas, preferences and favouritisms into crisis. It would challenge the current essence of the Labour Party as an institution.

Looking at some polling data from IPSOS MORI, Field certainly seems to have a point on the numbers at least. In the 2010 General Election, just 25% of skilled working class (C2) women voted Labour – a lesser proportion than from C1 and  AB (lower, middle and upper middle classes), and down 15% compared to 2005 (13% lower than 1992). In contrast, 33% of men of the same C2 class voted Labour, a 6% decline since 2005 and 9% down on 1992.

There does seem to be a particular problem between Labour and working class women, though it would seem to be part of a more general problem with working class voters in general.

To approach the question why without detailed survey data, we have to rely on conjecture and piecing different bits of circumstantial evidence together. However, as long as we accept that Labour’s approach to female equality is typical of the dominant feminist approach – which I think is incontrovertible – Field’s point seems to hold firm.

This can be seen in the big disjuncture that exists in this country between dominant feminism and women as a whole. As I have pointed out before here, only 14% of 1,300 women who took part in a study by Netmums called themselves feminist, with lesser enthusiasm amongst young women (just 9% of those aged 25 to 29 identified with it and only 8% of those aged 20 to 24).

Meanwhile last year the feminist website The F Word published an article by Pavan Amara in which she said, “out of 38 women who identified as working-class and were interviewed for this article, all [my emphasis] agreed with the statement that working-class women's voices were not adequately heard within mainstream feminism. Some still considered themselves feminists, others refused to identify as feminists because of a perceived glass ceiling of class and education within the movement itself.”

One of those interviewed said: 

“I remember once me and a friend from the same area rocked up [to a feminist event] in mini-skirts, high heels and red lipstick. We went because we felt strongly about women's place in society, but as soon as we walked in they stood there gawping at us like 'Why are you here?'

"We were instantly made to feel unwelcome, but we dressed like that because that's what all the other girls in our area were wearing at the time. They spoke to us like we wouldn't understand the political issues they were talking about, and we didn't really know the vocabulary they were using anyway.

"We tried another one in Liverpool, but felt totally fish out of water there as well. Even when we were deciding where to meet, me and my friend said down the pub over a few pints, and they looked at us with horror.”


That comment about being made to feel unwelcome is something which I think is particularly pertinent, since making people unwelcome is something that I think the Left specialises in. While proclaiming diversity, we often display a strict ideological rectitude that works to exclude all but a narrow band of fellow travellers who generally come from similar social backgrounds.

The convoluted over-theorised structures of ‘privilege’ talked of by feminists are a classic example of this.

It does not have to be this way though. Recently, I had something of a ‘Hallelujah’ moment reading an article written in 1992 by the feminist writers Caroline Knowles and Shamila Mercer – since it reveals how some feminists were making some of the same arguments as I have recently, but 20 years ago.

In their essay, ‘Feminism and Antiracism: An Exploration of the Political Possibilities’, Knowles and Mercer offer some welcome clarity which contrasts nicely with the customary ideological contortions of ‘patriarchy’ and what is now called 'intersectionality’ (in yet another of those gurningly-awful academic assaults on the English language).

Intersectionality is meant to integrate the various different forms of ‘oppression’ based on race, gender, sexuality, class and whatever other categories you can think of as ‘interlocking matrices of oppression’ that are fundamentally inter-related as part of an unjust social system.

Knowles and Mercer have little time for such inventions.

They say: 

“We ... argue that there is no general relationship between race and gender ... there are no inevitable or permanent relationships between groups of people organized in political discourse (constituencies) and political interests and positions. Women are not inevitably oppressed by men or capitalism. Oppression is not inevitable. It is a set of detailed practices which can be challenged by feminist politics.”


Knowles and Mercer take on the dominant feminist politics of their day for not accounting for racial differences but they also (perhaps bravely) take on the dominant antiracist politics of their day for viewing racism as an indivisible phenomenon which “collapses colonial domination, slavery and contemporary racism”.

Their main point is that to oppose racism or sexism, talking about vague structures like patriarchy and colonialism achieves little:

[Apologies for the length of the following quotation but I think publishing it in full is relevant and worthwhile]

Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchal social systems are frequently identified as producing inherent race and gender inequalities which, in various ways, serve the needs of the systems they perpetuate. The grim inevitability of sexism and racism is the message of these accounts which deal with ‘state racism’ and ‘institutional sexism’. Opposition to these general ‘isms’ is necessarily all-embracing, reaching beyond the manifestations of the problem to the structures of the system itself. Thus, ultimately, all forms of struggle are focused on capitalism and its political organization, the ‘state’. But when, as we are suggesting, racism and sexism are viewed as a series of effects which do not have a single cause, a different kind of politics is established. There is no need to accept these inequalities as inevitable or to develop strategies which strike at the very root of capitalist and patriarchal relations. We need only to identify the practices and procedures throughout a range of social institutions (some of which may belong to what is referred to as the ‘state’ and others of which may not) which have the effect of producing racial and gender disadvantage. These can then be monitored and challenged by feminists and antiracists. The advantage of our approach over the ones we criticize is that it allows small-scale direct political challenges to the concrete practices which produce race and gender inequalities. We argue strongly for a deconstructionist approach to any notion of oppression which is used to account for the position of women and black people. We do not wish to participate simply in the elaboration of accounts of our own oppression. Neither do we wish to celebrate that oppression with meetings and rallies. We prefer a mode of politics which engages with the details of the oppression and which is capable of ending it.”

Like I say, reading this was for me something of a ‘Hallelujah’ moment, albeit marred somewhat by the rather depressing thought of how the debate has not moved on in 20 years, since their critique is as relevant to feminist politics now as it was in 1992.

Labour’s equalities agenda is stuck in this place, buried in convoluted theoretical and organisational structures that practice exclusion and alienation while proclaiming inclusion and empowerment. Frank Field is right, but whether Labour will even be prepared to confront these issues openly and honestly looks a distant prospect at present. 

I hope I am wrong though, as indeed I do with many things.