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

30 September 2013

On objectification

Especially with the rise and rise of feminism as social power, talk of ‘objectification’ is getting quite an airing at the moment. It’s an interesting concept, well worth pondering for a little while here.

Firstly, let’s look at the idea that objectification is something we need to eliminate or reduce. When we say we shouldn’t objectify people or treat them as objects, it is far from clear how else we should deal with them.

After all, each of us is a subject, but another person to us appears as an object – in physical terms but also in how we define them beyond the purely physical – for example as happy, sad, engaging, or annoying. It is difficult to see how we can describe other people and deal with them through language without treating them as objects. To do so would renounce our capacity to do anything relating to others – in other words to be subjects – while in a superficial sense leaving ‘the other’ as something like a ‘pure subject’ –a being with ultimate power (something which is impossible and definitely not something we should strive towards).

So judging objectification as a concept is basically problematic, and can be rather silly.

But there is some truth and value underlying this treatment.

When talking of objectification, feminist and other types of theory are nodding towards power relations, and a crucial part of power relations is the power to make language, use language and control its dissemination through the media for example.

Hence in society we can find ourselves being on the receiving end of language defining us in terms that we have little or no control over, and that we may resent and dislike. That is inevitable to an extent in a free country with free speech, but it’s about having our voice heard, and when that doesn’t happen through the principal organs of dissemination (for us, the mass media, though the internet has thankfully made inroads into this), people can get annoyed and angry, often quite rightly.

We need to respect that right of social power to define ourselves and influence others through our views – this is basically about democracy for me, with the media as a crucial part of it. Full democratic participation in Britain is less than a hundred years old, and in many ways our democratic culture and institutions are weak. But that’s another topic for another day.

Here we’re looking at objectification itself, so let’s look a bit deeper at this subject and object in relation to human beings.

Another way of conceiving of the subject is as the ‘I’. Now, looking at the ‘I’ as an object doesn’t work – there is no ‘it’ there with the nature of an object which we can appraise and deal with as we do deal all the time with things and other people. It is not possible to grasp the ‘I’ in this way. You inevitably have to create objects to represent it but, when you do, ‘it’ disappears. The more you define, the further away you get from the nature of the ‘I’.

This is where a form of freedom lives, but many of us largely ignore, deny or reduce it in favour of that objectifying way. We treat ourselves as objects, grasped, thought about and then controlled all through language. This is one great danger of objectification.

A puzzle of objectification remains though, specifically: to what extent are we ‘right’ to treat others as objects?

This plays into the fields of ethics and justice.

Trying to conceive of someone else as a ‘subject’ is impossible, so if we are going to try to define someone properly ‘as a person’ we are left with looking at them as an object.  There is no way around that, since we do not have access to our own ‘I’, let alone that of others.

But, for me, a better way is rather to think of others according to what they do and what they say – looking at and maybe sometimes judging those actions and words, but not pretending we have any ultimate access to the ‘real’ person behind these things. That is a basic principle, albeit undermined in various ways, of our justice system - you break the law and you pay the price, whoever you are: institutions enforcing the law should be judging actions rather than attempting to judge the person behind them, which brings in all sorts of subjective judgements open to manipulation.

So – rather than objectifying people or trying the impossible by dealing with them purely as subjects, maybe we should stick to actions and words. We can objectify actions and words to our heart’s content without impinging on that valuable freedom of the ‘I’.

We might – and I think should (briefly here) – broaden this argument out beyond just the human being to the rest of the natural world. The world of nature (flora and fauna) might normally be thought of as not having the ‘I’ subject which us humans have. Yet with that they do not have the power to objectify themselves as we do. Their freedom lies in objective reality, which nowadays is largely prepared for them by human society.

I’m thinking we should respect that form of freedom a bit more too, in letting nature go through its motions rather than always controlling and destroying it for our own ends (or more often perhaps, the ends of institutions functioning within a clearly acquisitive, expansionary capitalist system).

25 September 2013

A Rather Interesting Red Ed. (On Miliband’s Conference speech)

This article was republished on the same day on the blog Left Foot Forward.

Ed Miliband’s Labour Conference speech was full of interesting and important ideas, so let’s get stuck in.

As Daily Mirror hack Kevin Maguire said on Twitter during the speech, “Red Ed is back.” It’s a rather interesting Red Ed though –not the 1970s socialist stereotype that right-wingers have been lambasting.

Certainly state intervention is back on the table in serious form. The energy companies will be subject to much greater control if Labour gets into government, land speculation will be curtailed in favour of development, and state schools will permanently extend opening hours to make life easier for working parents.

Each of these policies are potentially problematic, and I have my fingers crossed they have been thought through properly and Labour has got its defences and counter-attacks planned well for the assault that began immediately even while Ed was talking.

The headline-grabbing act was the proposal to act against the energy companies by instituting a consumer price freeze until the beginning of 2017 (from the election in May 2015 I assume)

The more I have pondered this idea, the less I am disliking it: not because of the headline proposal to freeze prices though. This will be disruptive on its own and is potentially open to various forms of manipulation and abuse, but the policy that seems to underlie it is far more important. This, as shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint indicated after the speech, is to break the energy companies into their ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ elements –generators and suppliers.

Miliband has sent a letter to the energy companies explaining his position, in which he said:

"You and I know that the public have lost faith in this market. There is a crisis of confidence. We face a stark choice. We can work together on the basis of this price freeze to make the market work in the future. Or you can reinforce in the public mind that you are part of the problem not the solution.”

This seems to me a follow-up to what Ed said in his speech last year:

“I invite British businesses – work with us in advance of the next Labour government. Let’s refound the rules of the game so we have a One Nation business model as part of a One Nation economy for our country.”

The transcript doesn’t bring out the message as I took it at the time (and perhaps he said more in the actual speech). I took the message loud and clear that if business didn’t come to the table, then Labour would act without it.

Certainly, the aim to act on energy is sound. It is a public good: the energy companies are still called ‘utilities’; they are essential to a modern society and a modern economy; they do not belong in the sphere of unrestrained capitalism, and nor is that where they sit at present.

The major reason that Government, the media and general public have not been able to pin down what the energy companies are doing and how they really make their money is the way the biggest and most successful ones are ‘vertically integrated’, including upstream gas and electricity production, and supply to end-users (customers). This enables them to trade gas and power between their different arms through tax havens at artificial prices; therefore they can report profits where they like and tell everyone how their domestic supply businesses are struggling on low margins. This is about ‘transfer pricing’, a practice which become rife in our deregulated, globalised, brave new world of capitalism.

This is a shady world of speculation in which profits appear seemingly from out of the air. It is not completely unlike our property market, in which speculators make money by sitting on land and derelict buildings, not doing anything with them, and watching the price of those assets rise as the market gets squeezed between supply and demand. Meanwhile, ordinary people can’t afford homes to live in, schools and local authorities are struggling to find spaces for children, and the cost of setting up new companies and civil society institutions is prohibitive in some areas – London and the South East in particular.

Again, ‘One Nation Labour’ is right to address this issue, but the devil will be in the details of practical implementation and interaction with the companies.

Like probably everyone, I am completely in favour of universal ‘wraparound’ care in primary schools from 8am till 6am (conditional on it being affordable of course).  This is potentially a very popular policy with those eponymous ‘hard-working families’ and would be a realistic civilising measure for a world in which paid work is held up above all else.

I would like a bit more cultural acceptance within Labour for parents looking after their children though, and this brings us on to the ‘equalities agenda’ that figured later on in the speech – the section which was most directed to the core activist base in the hall.

Crowing about gay marriage, boasting of how Labour’s women “are not satisfied that 33% of Labour MPs are women, they want it to be 50% and they are right” and leading the clarion call for votes at 16 – these all play to the base, telling some of Labour’s dominant tribes exactly what they want to hear in the same language that they use. It should work in getting a core of existing young, motivated activists out on the streets campaigning for Labour, so in that sense it will succeed.

However this list actually offers a few pointers to longer-term troubles (which you might call 'existential troubles') on account of this ‘liberal’-left agenda having largely exhausted itself through its own success. Gay marriage has already been achieved (pushed through by a right-wing-dominated government no less, not long after the truly-revolutionary civil partnerships) while the 50% target for women Labour MPs could be achieved at the next election, largely through the ever-contentious practice of All-Women’s Shortlists in Labour candidate selections. 

‘Votes for Children’ is a standout new policy, but doesn’t have quite the moral force of 'Votes for Women’ or votes for the working classes that previous generations fought for.

In Labour circles, this agenda is largely about the practice of cultural hegemony. Labour’s dominant tribes thrive through the practice of identity politics – through gender, sexuality, class and, less powerful in political terms, race and ethnicity. The Labour women’s movement in particular has become an especially powerful political engine in the party and all its associated institutions.

Nevertheless, these concerns are mostly for days past and in the future. Votes for Children won’t be particularly popular with the existing electorate, but opponents will be reluctant to attack it for fear of alienating a whole swathe of future voters.

‘Blairite’ Labour outcast Dan Hodges also said a few things about the speech which bear thinking about.

In his Telegraph column, Hodges said, “it played to his strengths. Empathy, sincerity and – not a word always associated with Miliband – passion.”

And: “Over the past few months the Tories have been hammering Labour on a number of vital policy areas; notably the economy, immigration and welfare. But, rather than fight back, Miliband seemed to effectively cede them to his opponents.”

These are legitimate concerns, but this was a speech more about crowd-pleasing, with some of the crowd thankfully way outside the hall, barely aware of him or it. Miliband presented himself, rather well, as one of the good guys, part of a political gang you might not completely hate, with an optimistic message of hope including some genuinely interesting policy proposals that could make a real difference to ordinary people.

That’s surely good enough for now.

6 September 2013

Unite and Labour in Falkirk: a legitimate stitch-up, or worse?

Just before 5pm on a Friday, with the focus of the parliamentary lobby on the G20 in St Petersburg or their third pint, Labour put out  its statement that Karie Murphy, Stephen Deans and the union Unite have been exonerated of wrongdoing over the Falkirk parliamentary selection fiasco.

Immediately the warring old Labour Left and ‘Blairite’ factions resumed hostilities on Twitter over what it meant, with the former (Owen Jones leading the pack), demanding that all comments by anyone against Unite be withdrawn and apologised for, completely, immediately, unequivocally.

I’m a Labour member (a branch secretary indeed) and am no member of either faction. However I am far from convinced by this ‘exoneration’.

As far as I see it, the Falkirk affair is either an example of legitimate (or ‘institutionalised’) fixing by Unite, within the rules, or there has been a cover-up – and there are sources in Falkirk Labour who claim the latter.

As the New Statesman’s George Eaton wrote soon after the news came out (while also quoting Labour’s statement in full):

“It is no coincidence that the matter has been resolved two days before the start of the TUC conference and a few weeks before Labour's gathering in Brighton. Earlier this week, Unite's Scottish branch warned that it would boycott the Labour conference unless Murphy and Deans were reinstated.”

So, circumstantially, this action is rather convenient for Ed Miliband, Labour’s governing body the National Executive Committee (NEC) and Unite too.

Indeed in its statement announcing the decision, Labour said: “At each step Labour’s general secretary and NEC have acted quickly to protect the interest of the party.” Read that carefully – the interest of the party. The statement then admitted that key evidence had been withdrawn and further evidence provided by individuals concerned.

This statement doesn’t exactly deter further interest in the case, and it didn’t take long for the investigative journalist Michael Crick to reveal on Twitter, “Falkirk Labour source claims witnesses to wrongdoing were persuaded to withdraw their evidence under pressure”. This is crucial evidence (from Unite members remember, who claimed they had been enrolled without their knowledge) which led to Labour initially referring the case to police.

From the outside it could be that the whole case was either a misunderstanding or the blowing up of a local issue into a national scandal.

But that leaves us with certain facts. One of the most important is that Unite did attempt to fix the selection of Karie Murphy by Falkirk Constituency Labour Party by a mass enrolment of around a hundred of its members just before the selection started – an action which boosted membership 50% overnight. This could have been legitimate under Labour’s rules: unions are now allowed to pay Labour membership fees of members joining the party, so are able to control that process totally.

So either way, the immediate response from the BBC 1’s Six O’Clock News that “Unite has been cleared of trying to rig" Falkirk was incorrect, though no doubt convenient for both Labour and Unite. Unite has in fact been cleared of breaking the rules.

Given the party’s highly-developed and -convoluted apparatus of legitimised fixing which is constantly fiddled with by the NEC to suit whichever faction is dominant, sticking to the rules isn’t any guarantee of probity or ethics within Labour.

As I have argued here and elsewhere before, we could really do with some ethical standards in Labour: institutionalising ethics rather than fixing for one’s faction. The Right and Left factions generally assume the absolute worst of each other, and often they are right (or at least have been in the past).

However Labour people better keep a watch out for Michael Crick and others, who are going to be digging in to this story further. To me, this ‘exoneration’ doesn’t smell right. Certainly if there has been a cover-up, the scandal could get a whole lot worse for Labour and for Unite.

After all, as was said after Watergate, “it's not the crime, it's the cover up.”

3 September 2013

A few thoughts on depression, and philosophy

The subject of depression has got a fair amount attention in the media in recent times, something much to be welcomed.

High-profile figures like former spin doctor Alastair Campbell,ex-footballer-turned-pundit Stan Collymore and the writer Marian Keyes have made their sufferings public and given a lot of encouragement to others who have gone through similar experiences.

I’ve been a sufferer myself in the past and certainly welcome these interventions, especially for the way these people have candidly revealed weaknesses in themselves, thereby making it easier for others to do the same. Campbell wrote a little book called ‘The Happy Depressive’, exploring his own experiences and depression as a public policy issue.

I won’t go into that book in detail here because I want to take a brief look at depression from a different angle, but one quotation wouldn’t go amiss:

“In the US, trust in other people being ‘nice’ has fallen from 60 per cent to 30 per cent in fifty years. It is the same story in the UK. In 1959, 60 per cent of people felt other people could generally be trusted. It has now halved. [Professor Richard] Layard [a Labour peer] believes that decline has matched the rise of consumerism which has been accompanied by a rise in the obsession with status, and envy of those who do better than us.”

A great many people, including me, agree with him – but these are themes that barely get discussed in our everyday political knockabout. We should be trying to do something about that.

However, that is something of a tangent for my focus here, which is on how depression manifests itself and a link from depression to philosophy. If I want to be pretentious (something I do enjoy sometimes), I might call it the ‘existential’ aspect of depression – the experience itself.

I say ‘experience’, but being properly depressed is almost like a negation of experience. It is a partial breakdown in the human operation, with a dulling of the senses and a shutdown of everyday human feelings and emotions. Lewis Wolpert called depression, in the title of his book about it, ‘Malignant Sadness’. But, in a way, depression is beyond sadness. Sadness is emotion and depression is not emotional at all: that’s part of the problem with it, not least because an emotional reaction might provide a stimulant to do something about it.

When you are depressed, everything becomes difficult: a task; something to be overcome with effort. Activity that is transparent and barely thought about in ‘normal’ life becomes wracked with difficulty and subject to questioning, sometimes punishing questioning.

In the title of this post, I also referred to philosophy. The relationship of philosophy to depression is fascinating on many different levels. For one, our lives take place within customs and practices in which we are barely aware about how our thoughts and justifications are shaped by ‘some defunct philosopher(s)’ (to misquote the economist John Maynard Keynes).

The philosopher Martin Heidegger had some particularly interesting things to say that have great significance to depression in my view.

As Hubert Dreyfus explains in this fascinating video of him in conversation with the polymath presenter Bryan Magee (which is also available in book form):

“[Heidegger] said to his students, in effect: ‘When you come into the classroom you must turn the door-knob, but you don’t perceive the door-knob, take it to be a door-knob, believe that you have to turn it to get in, try to turn it, etc. All we observe is, here you are in the classroom and you couldn’t have gotten here without turning the doorknob. You have no memory of doing so because the whole activity is so transparent it does not have to pass through consciousness.’ We might add that a driver does a lot of fancy footwork with the clutch, but he may, at the same time, be absorbed in a deep philosophical conversation. His coping need not enter consciousness.”

With depression however, this transparent activity breaks down. Driving the car becomes fraught with doubt and difficulty; turning the doorknob becomes a task in which the mind is engaged rather than taking it for granted as Dreyfus/Heidegger explains above.

What is particularly interesting to me is that Heidegger’s philosophy is partly predicated on a rejection of one core tenet of mainstream traditional philosophy: that people are primarily thinking and knowing beings. He says that this aspect of our existence is one step behind the primary dimension (though he didn’t use the word dimension) – that of ‘Being’ itself, which incorporates significance, meaning and relations to people and objects, before any thinking enters the picture.

In his major work Being and Time, Heidegger criticises the philosophy of Descartes (who famously said, “I think therefore I am”) on this very level, for approaching human existence as something which is fundamentally about thinking and something which is thought.  

Heidegger says:

“Mathematical knowledge is regarded by Descartes as the one manner of apprehending entities which can always give assurance that their Being has been securely grasped. If anything measures up in its own kind of Being to the Being that is accessible in mathematical knowledge, then it is in the authentic sense”.

Heidegger regarded this as absurd – for him, what comes first and ‘is’ in an authentic sense is our existence. We don’t need to know, measure, or prove that.

In one sense, what can happen in depression is Descartes’ philosophy becoming manifest in the human being; while at the same time Heidegger’s is lost.

What is essentially human in us gets lost, and we become wrapped up in seemingly endless thought that goes nowhere.

For me, this sometimes meant trying to justify and prove what I did was the ‘right’ thing to do.

But existence is not something which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: it just is.