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

16 December 2014

How Heidegger shows us the meaning of society

What is society?

It isn’t a thing or an object like other things or objects are. In that sense, Margaret Thatcher was broadly right in saying: “There is no such thing as society”. But we do use the word widely to refer to an ‘it’ – society – so though we cannot pin it down in the physical real world, society undoubtedly has a reality in consciousness, for us. We might for example think of it as a ‘subjective object’, albeit something which is not so much thought as felt.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger never wrote directly about society as far as I am aware, but his reflections on the nature of ‘being’ – of human beings and other beings, including the inanimate objects of our world – show how we are each connected into the world of other people and objects. As such he sketches out how what we might call the architecture or internal wiring of society works, and thereby provides us with a powerful way of conceiving what it is that makes ‘us’ us.

One of the few examples Heidegger gave in his writings on the being of objects is the hammer. The hammer’s ‘being’ is wrapped up not so much in its attributes like size, weight and the materials used in its manufacture, but in its being a hammer which we use for hammering – in this sense it is ‘ready-to-hand’ for us to hammer with.

A hammer, for hammering

But if I was a small child or came from a completely different culture and had never come across a hammer before, I’d be clueless about it. I wouldn’t know its name, what it was for or how it came into existence. Links of familiarity, significance, common language and customs give objects like hammers their meaning in our social world – this is what their being is all about in our everyday lives.

Taylor Carman, in his introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time, says:

“Being is entities making sense (to us) as entities – even if only tacitly, dimly, unconsciously. Unlike entities themselves, then, being in a sense depends on us; it is not “out there” like some alien or occult phenomenon but resides entirely in the most mundane human experience.”

This mundane example of the hammer shows us something that we share with other people – an instant appreciation of what the object is, how to use it, and what to use it for. This is integrated into our own being as well as into the hammer’s being. What’s more, it is social, in that others share the same sort of relationship to a hammer. The hammer is therefore not primarily a separate object in terms of its being; it is physically separate yet at the same time bound up with the world of human beings who buy and sell it, use it and store it. It is part of us and us a part of it.

We would be justified in describing this way of looking at the world that Heidegger explores as a different dimension – an existential dimension of being that is radically different to the traditional dimensions that mainstream philosophy and everyday language uses. Those conventional dimensions of height, width, length and time for example are simple and familiar to us once we understand them. This existential dimension of being which Heidegger sketches out meanwhile carries human meaning and significance. In this dimension objects are defined (defined as what they are) always in relation to people, dependent on rather than abstracted from the understandings of those people. There is no validity or right and wrong here except as relations to particular understandings and interpretations. The hammer may be a hammer to me and you, but other people may understand and use it in a completely different way.

While the hammer’s being as a hammer unites those who are familiar with it in that way, it excludes those who are unfamiliar. This is nothing to do with exclusion by conscious thought and will; it rather follows automatically from what we might call ‘living in another world’ – either the world of a child who has not yet been socialised or of someone else who is not part of the same ‘society’ and would need to become attuned to the various understandings, familiarities and significances (like hammers being for hammering) to be a part of it.

Obviously this is almost always a question of degrees, not of being absolutely ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a whole world of shared understandings, but this is the meaning of society which Heidegger’s insights point towards. It is an ethereal dimension in which the 'we', or 'us', is constituted.

Society is what we share

In this way, we might say that society is what we share. We can find it in the connections, understandings and familiarities that link us to objects in our world and to each other. A shared understanding and familiarity of what to do when we meet someone (shake hands? A hug? a kiss on the cheek? a kiss on both cheeks? ‘How Are You?’ ‘Fine’) – to do the appropriate thing – is a basic constituent of society. It is perhaps noteworthy that the English and those who share England as a space are often unsure what to do in this situation, which we might see as an element of how English society is not as strong, integrated and confident as some other cultures.

You can be a member of a society with people you have never met and will never meet. Likewise some people you know quite well might seem to be – and feel themselves to be – part of a different society, possessing different meanings and practices and using different reference points (for example watching television from their former home countries). In our globalising world, we can feel multiple overlapping familiarities and detachments with people and entities from all over, an indication of how we are getting even further from any idea of ‘society’ as a collection of people simply sharing space, like within the borders of a nation-state for example.

The ‘we’ or ‘us’ that we use in conversation is therefore open to many more interpretations and confusions. I might say: “We should question ourselves more,” but who am I talking about or talking to? It is far from clear, and is therefore a less rigorous statement than it might have been in earlier times. Indeed it is more like talking to the air, which is what an awful lot of political activity entails nowadays. As a writer for example you are speaking to a certain restricted audience while perhaps seeking to address a different, or wider, one. The most successful writers tend to address the audience they are speaking to, but often find themselves in silos by doing so, telling folks what they want to hear and not affecting many others or changing many minds.

Society and democratic politics

This increasing inability to conceive of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ readily is problematic for democratic politics, for it is more difficult to build up unified social and political movements based on shared goals and understandings when shared goals and understandings have dissipated. Indeed, our political parties find themselves determinedly dividing and demarcating voters into groups, making assumptions about them and targeting specific messages and policies at them as discrete, separate social units – effectively as micro-societies based on certain criteria (gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, and religion for example).

As they put us into boxes and treat us as part of grids like this, so they reduce our individuality; but they also take us away from any idea of a greater, wider society.

What Heidegger’s account of ‘being’ offers us is a distinctive way of looking at society – as not so much who we are as what we share with each other. (So, to provide one example it is less about what we look like, and more about what we do with what we look like – how we dress, do our hair, apply makeup etc.) On one level sharing refers to our basic understandings, familiarities and practices. But on another level is the more active meaning of sharing, as a deliberate act. (Again, this drawing in of others from the outside to the inside is something that those of us who share English or British culture tend to be rather weak at.)

When what we share gets stronger or weaker, so society as a meaningful ‘thing’ does also. Yet this ‘thing’ of society appears as what we might call an existential or metaphysical object, not a physical one. We can feel the strength and comfort it gives, and can also feel it ebbing away when we find ourselves in situations where we don’t share much with those around us. But we cannot reach out and touch it, nor can we see, hear or define it – because the dimension on which sharing exists is not physical but relational.

There is perhaps a lesson for political parties in this, my thoughts being on the Labour Party, of which I’m a member.

There is a tendency for all organisations and institutions to become increasingly mono-cultural over time as shared understandings, significances and practices get promoted within them and become more established. But by doing this they lose their wider affiliations and links into a wider society.

There is no getting around insider-outsider distinctions, and indeed those distinctions are part of the essence of democratic competition. But nevertheless it would be a good idea for Labour and other institutions to promote shared understandings and practices that come from a deeper place (the meaning of the institution itself for example) rather giving free rein to dominant groups to impose their particular ways across the board. Doing the latter can make the institution seem strong and united, but only on a limited basis with limited scope. If it is seeking widespread and even national legitimacy, it needs ways of reaching way beyond these groups and bringing in others.

This is one of the big challenges for democratic parties in the diverse world in which they find themselves: they need to actually build society themselves, on a wider basis than their existing tribal groupings, or else face further loss of legitimacy.

For more on similar topics, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.

30 November 2014

Karl Polanyi and the politics and economics of mass immigration

I’m not trained in economics but I do know a bit and have been intermittently digging through Karl Polanyi’s book ‘The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time; said to be a core text for Ed Miliband and his close political gang.

Perhaps the most interesting and arresting ideas in The Great Transformation concern what Polanyi called the ‘fictitious commodities’: land, labour and money.

I was reminded of this when reading a post by Chris Dillow on his Stumbling and Mumbling blog yesterday. Dillow's piece jumped off from the most read post on this blog – about how our immigration debate misses the main point by focusing only on economic aspects and treating how people feel as somehow illegitimate (something which is thankfully no longer the case – partly due to the excellent recent work of British Future).

In his fascinating argument to which I’ll digress for a while here, Dillow discusses how and why public opinion differs from rational economic opinion on general questions, and immigration in particular – though he abstracts from people’s experiences and feelings, which is something I have been keen not to do in my writings here. He then came back to admit that these attempts could be flawed, but kept solidly to the project of a theorist or economist seeking to find a rational solution to the immigration question: is it a good thing? Should we have more of it?

Whether immigration is a good thing as a whole is a universal question which I don’t think we can answer. It of course depends, on so many different things at different times. The question of whether – and to what extent – we want the current extended wave of mass immigration to continue is a more practical question but is difficult enough.

Taking a rationalist approach based on statistical data and other sources, we couldn’t possibly draw on all the potentially relevant facts available to decide this more limited question even if we wanted to. Immigration may be a good thing or a bad thing in different ways in different contexts at different times and places, but deciding which, when and why is an inexact science at best, if it even deserves the title of a science. Attempting to resolve the question requires reducing the phenomenon to a few determinants chosen above others (tax contribution versus benefits for example) – and making that call is not a scientific judgement but a pure judgement call, open to all the prejudice you can muster. The statistics are also often contested, as are the conclusions drawn from them.

This whole project is also, if it is claiming to decide the right course, inherently anti-democratic.

There is nothing wrong with research carried out to inform the debate, and we can never get completely away from the prejudices of researchers (though they are often strikingly obvious). But we should take lightly their claims to scientific, ‘factual’ or ‘logical’ backing for their ultimate judgements of right and wrong, good and bad. They should be helping to inform the debate and not deciding it.

The alternative is democratic decision-making, which is of course imperfect by nature but at least has a form of public legitimacy, rather than elite authority based on a dubious positive rationality (rational thinking is much more secure as a critical tool). As I have discussed here before, Chantal Mouffe makes some arguments about ‘the political’ which offer some good counter-perspectives to the rationalist one – and these have relevance to immigration as discussed here. Democracy is not here to reach some sort of elusive or imaginary rational consensus; it is with us to provide decision-making for the people, on their terms. That is the whole point of it.

I’ve digressed. But nevertheless, for the argument I’m going to try and make now, it’s worth bearing in mind the reality of mass immigration always taking place within a context and with a whole host of different factors at play, along the basic lines of: who the immigrants are; the situation of the place they’re moving to and the people who live there; and the interaction between them.

For me though, it’s been all very well talking about the importance of how people on the ‘receiving’ end feel and having a pop at the rationalists for ignoring this aspect or treating it as illegitimate. As Dillow points to, I’ve provided a brief existential explanation for unease about immigration based around the idea of ‘home’ – the connections and familiarities which make places homes, and how a mass influx of people can disturb and undermine that phenomenon. But personally I haven’t engaged much on the economics, and the economics is an important ground.

One of the valuable aspects of Karl Polanyi’s perspective is that it doesn’t abstract economics from the situatedness of real life, and keeps in view the importance of ethics – addressing head on the idea that economics as a discipline is somehow separate and self-governing. Too often, indeed almost always, the practice and language of economics takes place on a plain of data, calculation and manipulation where it loses those important connections with the world it is talking about. In Polanyi’s view it does this in part by treating land, labour, and money as commodities when they each have a fundamentally different nature to other commodities.

Fred Block explains it as follows:

For Polanyi the definition of a commodity is something that has been produced for sale on a market. By this definition land, labour, and money are fictitious commodities because they were not originally produced to be sold on a market. Labour is simply the activity of human beings, land is subdivided nature, and the supply of money and credit in modern societies is necessarily shaped by governmental policies. Modern economics starts by pretending that these fictitious commodities will behave in the same way as real commodities, but Polanyi insists that this sleight of hand has fatal consequences. It means that economic theorizing is based on a lie, and this lie places human society at risk.”
The economist Karl Polanyi

Polanyi himself says:
Labour is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man.”

The importance of these perspectives for our immigration debate is firstly that land and labour (people) are limited and have a value of their own that’s separate from the calculating, maximising ways of our dominant economic modes of thinking.

But through mass immigration the economic forces which drive our world are finding ingenious ways to get around these constraints.

Business has been using mass immigration as a means of expanding its pool of labour – much of it willing to work more for less – while retaining the advantages and benefits of staying in Britain. Likewise the Treasury in Whitehall likes immigration because it means more workers paying more in tax while it lumps many of the costs on to local councils already struggling with terrible funding cuts.

This is the expansionary aspect of capitalism as an economic system – it constantly seeks new markets and better, more efficient means of production. More people means bigger markets, greater spending and increased potential profits. This is just what business does – there’s nothing necessarily immoral or wrong with it, though we should be questioning the system which keeps driving these processes.

So in a sense, what we are seeing with Britain’s current great immigration wave (which began in 1997 with the election of a Labour Government), is the economy buying in additional labour from abroad just like a football club buying a foreign star – and thereby getting around that one of Polanyi’s fictitious commodities.

The fact that land is limited and cannot be produced (except in exceptional circumstances like in Holland and East Anglia) has seen our economic system seeking out new markets and new means of production – through colonisation (remember that it was the East India Company which captured India) and other, softer means – including the basic incentives of wealth and power that Britain was the first to demonstrate. This system has now captured virtually the whole world but has also always expanded within existing territories to maximise and intensify activity – finding avenues to intrude into every corner of our lives. Rising population goes hand in glove with this process, creating new bands of buyers all the time – and also workers.

But the limits of land keep on being felt through this process of economic intensification and the population growth that goes with it.

By importing a net 260,000 people a year as Britain is now, we are increasing our population by the the size of Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, every four years. Most of the new arrivals are settling in England, which is already the most crowded country in Europe. This requires us to intrude more and more into our environment to accommodate these people and cater for their activities and needs. We can see the effects of this all around us, especially in the most crowded part of England, London and the South-East. Just in my local area of South London, the impacts of continually rising population are everywhere: primary schools expanding into their playgrounds with new buildings; property and rental prices going beyond the reach of many; public services straining under a combination of increasing demand and reduced funding; and congestion on roads and public transport making getting to work a daily nightmare for many.

Economically, we might expect these factors to deter people and push them away, but there is little sign of this as yet.

Besides our concern with the environment and a natural world, in which species are progressively dying off as we colonise and pollute our way to greater growth, we should question the sort of life we are offering to ourselves and future generations by cramming in so many new people every year. We should also be concerned about food security, which will become more and more pressing as global heating (otherwise known as 'warming') gathers pace, for food production requires land.

As the sociologist Anthony Giddens said recently: “Climate change is a huge existential risk for us, which the world at the moment is in absolute denial of.”

As a democratic society we have not been thinking about these aspects in anything like a serious manner. We have no strategy for what to do with our limited land nor what to do with our people, beyond feeding them into the same cement mixer and replacing the people who don’t come up to specification with other people from elsewhere. As Polanyi points out, this is a project of our state and our politics: in his words, “laissez-faire was planned”. Nearly always, our political debates get reduced to technical economic terms and attempts to maximise economic growth, keeping on the same narrative and pushing other major issues aside. 

Mass immigration feeds into this growth agenda. But, as a phenomenon, immigration always defies reduction to a single aspect – there are so many different considerations and different factors to consider, including the existential. As such it mirrors the wider vista of politics, which our political, media and business establishment has found convenient to ignore for too long. 

For more on related topics, see Immigration and the left and Environment, climate and land pages.

19 November 2014

In Praise of Yvette Cooper - for standing up against the paralysing ‘liberal’ consensus

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has helped ignite another of those increasingly regular cyclones of protest from our liberal-left publications about virtually any talk about immigration.

Cooper’s speech on ‘Labour’s approach to immigration’ addressed this sort of attitude head-on in her introductory passage, in which she said:

On the one hand we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and UKIP over immigration. UKIP are exploiting peoples’ fears, fuelling anxiety and division, and David Cameron is racing to catch up. Between them they promote the idea that immigration is all and always bad, and should always be stopped.

On the other hand some liberal commentators seem to think talking about immigration at all is reactionary, and concern about immigration is irrational. They give the impression that immigration is all and always good, and should all be encouraged.

Both sides shout at each other. Neither are right. And most people don’t agree with either of them.”

This language isn’t unlike some of the arguments I have been making on this blog, though I think the initial rhetoric about an ‘arms race’ between the Tories and UKIP is overblown: I’ve got no love for either party but I’ve heard virtually nothing from either of them promoting the idea that immigration is all and always bad. This is the kind of lazy accusation that we repeat to each other to reassure ourselves and then end up actually believing.

Nevertheless, the next few things Cooper said were more interesting, challenging ‘liberal commentators’, their idea that concerns about immigration are ‘irrational’ and that all immigration is good. It’s nice to see this sort of argument coming out not just from Labour’s more thoughtful backbenchers but from senior Labour shadow cabinet members, in a feverish environment in which they have virtually no support from liberal-left media and institutions.

The rest of the speech mostly reiterated existing policies and positions, though there was another good, straightforward message on EU migration: ‘Fair movement, rather than free movement’. This is a significant statement in Labour and left-wing politics, and is not a world away from the position that David Cameron holds in trying to renegotiate in the EU, though with a more friendly attitude and no threat to withdraw in Labour’s case.

The liberal-left reaction has again been remarkable in its vituperation, anger - and what I might even suggest is a degree of desperation, that despite all their pleas, this issue has not gone away. The arguments used are the familiar, well-worn ones we’ve seen many times before

Since hardly anyone else is doing it, it’s worth going through some of the latest ones and showing how flimsy they are.

Let’s start with an editorial in The Independent newspaper: ‘Race to the Bottom on Immigration’, which damned Cooper, saying she “might have added that Labour has been so spooked by the arms race that it too has decided to join in”, adding for good measure that “immigration takes a regrettable place on every party’s agenda”.

Now undoubtedly every party is thinking about electoral dynamics and their chances heading up to the next election, but it seems just straightforwardly wrong to suggest this is purely cynical politics and just represents some sort of race to the bottom.

Labour MPs want to be re-elected and candidates want to get elected. More than eight out of 10 Britons now support a major tightening of rules on benefits and curbs on overall immigration (which is now running at a million new people net every four years, excluding illegals). Responding to real concerns is what democratic politicians do, and we should welcome it both within the Labour Party and in the media.

But those same-old counter arguments keep coming. Anoosh Chakelian of the New Statesman makes the same one, asking ‘Is Labour on the brink of an immigration arms race?’. She answers a straight ‘yes’, deriding “this country’s so-called immigration problem” and suggesting that politicians are blaming immigrants for “structural failings” like “housing shortages, low wages, and a damagingly flexible labour market, as well as anxieties about other cash-strapped public services”.

There are a couple of the most common conceits in dominant liberal-left opinion here. First up, that being concerned about immigration and its various aspects means ‘blaming immigrants’. This is dreadful and dishonest use of language that needs some evidence to back it up at least – but we never see it, or rather we generally infer the blame from...somebody not blaming. The second is that when it comes to supply and demand dynamics, only the side that doesn’t conflict with our political views matters. So housing shortages and prices going up has nothing to do with an extra four or five million people needing somewhere to live, low wages have nothing to do with extra competition from those prepared to work more for less, etc. 

Pointing out these things has nothing to do with blaming immigrants, but the fact that Labour and wider liberal-left opinion sees these basics as taboo should be as alarming as it is unsurprising. When those picked to disseminate opinion within your ranks start sacrificing truth to assertion and moralistic preening, you're in trouble.

The Guardian’s political editor Rafael Behr, while not referring directly to Cooper’s speech, wishes that Labour “would deal with resentment of immigration through policies that address the pressure on wages and services that new arrivals are said to exert, not by pretending the border can be sealed”.

This seems to be what Labour is basically doing, though it will be interesting to see what transpires from ‘fair movement’ rather than free movement within the EU. However, again, note the language from Behr– “are said to exert” as if it is some sort of myth that heightened demand doesn’t affect service availability. It's really quite remarkable.

Lastly here, Labour’s house news service LabourList carried a piece by Maya Goodfellow, entitled: ‘Miliband says it’s not prejudiced to talk about immigration – but that’s exactly what this immigration debate is built on’ - protesting that Labour MPs like David Blunkett and Frank Field and the leadership are “continuing to concede ground to Ukip and the Tories by accepting that immigration is a problem at all”.

This reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Saying that our immigration debate is ‘built on’ prejudice is both meaningless and wrong, as if there is a root cause of a debate like this, and it’s not the experiences of the real people that the likes of Frank Field and David Blunkett meet in their work as MPs but rather from their own prejudice – that they are basically racist. Either Maya Goodfellow is not honest enough to come out and say that or she doesn’t really believe it, in which case she shouldn’t be saying it indirectly.

All these articles and their opinions are significant not just in themselves but for what they say about where hegemony of opinion lies on the left. These are the house opinions of left publications, and they are all the same. I haven’t quoted from the Huffington Post UK, but its political director Mehdi Hasan put out a stream of vituperative tweets about Labour and immigration following Cooper’s speech.

Goodfellow’s article was also strikingly aggressive towards Ed Miliband for his own (very benign) rhetoric, in a way that you would be unlikely to see on any other subject except immigration.

Hegemony doesn’t give up its supremacy without a fight. For this hegemony though, it is notable that that the more its members fight and make a noise, they more they succeed in convincing and mobilising each other, but hardly anyone else.

For more on similar issues from this blog, see Immigration and the left page and The Labour Party and other party politics page.