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

19 June 2014

Why the left is in such a muddle over immigration

The liberal-left is in a terrible muddle over immigration at the moment largely because of a pervasive and highly-judgemental rationalism which completely fails to engage with people as they are.

This rather arrogant, dogmatic form of rationalism assumes that who we are, our opinions and our feelings, are all derived from thought, reflection, decisions and judgements.

Hence the discomfort someone might be feeling about lots of outsiders moving into their neighbourhood is viewed as being derived from a thought and ultimately a judgement that outsiders, or certain types of outsiders, are bad by definition.

In this way this sort of rationalism takes theoretical, universalistic thinking as primary to human existence, and assumes we are formed and come to be who we are primarily by thinking and judgements made from thinking. So, we would assume the person who is discomforted by lots of outsiders moving in to their area has done some thinking and concluded that outsiders are bad. On this basis we could reasonably assume that he or she is a racist or a xenophobe, and might also reasonably assume that those feelings of discomfort they have are a natural result of them being a racist or a xenophobe. We could reasonably say they are wrong both in factual and in moral terms and seek to attack and suppress them and their views.

This is quite a jump, from the person in question feeling discomforted by immigration to seeing them as a racist who is worth attacking.

This leap is made possible by an abstraction of the feeling, from the actual world of experience in which it arose to a universalistic ideological dimension – the dimension of high political theory. A personal resistance to a specific example of immigration is therefore taken by this sort of rationalism as a universal resistance to immigration and therefore also to immigrants – universalising the particular in a way customary to all ideologies.

I presented this as a hypothetical case, but anyone familiar with the ways of the liberal-left should be familiar with this train of thought. It is a startlingly judgemental way of looking at people, not least in this case because the person in question has not actually expressed any racist views. We know however that this will not stop them being accused directly or indirectly of being a racist, both from the left and by ex-New Labour types and Liberal Democrats.

This position is another example of the sort of ideological thinking I have been exploring a lot on this blog. It relies on a basic prejudice grounded in the assumption that just by feeling uncomfortable about incomings, this person’s world and place in the world can be understood fundamentally and can therefore be judged and pronounced upon freely and confidently.

In this way the immigrationist ideologue will say that the person feeling uncomfortable is ‘wrong’, perhaps because they ‘don’t understand the facts’, while at the same time not maintaining even a bare acquaintance with that person’s life experience – an irony they will either gloss over or be completely unaware of.

Unfortunately this rather authoritarian type of rationalism is widespread across the whole liberal-left in Britain, including Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens. I would go as far as to say it is the dominant way of thinking on the liberal-left today; it is something of a default position to fall back on and gather around in order to reassert our group bonds.

Thankfully, this tendency is being challenged by braver and more reflective types like Jon Cruddas, Rachel Reeves and John Denham, who know that people who are concerned about immigration are not all nasty racists who deserve to be suppressed and written off.  But they do not have the ready language and easy arguments to fall back on that the dominant rationalist view does: theirs are relatively new and unfamiliar arguments that do not tell people what they want to hear, and do not hold ready appeal to mainstream left-wing activists and true believers.

Even though Cruddas and Reeves are both important members of the Shadow Cabinet with access to the leader, in everyday liberal political-media discourse they are insurgents, barely chipping away at the consensus view. In their resolution not to dismiss the hypothetical person in this article, they are rather lonely on the left. The left’s dominant tribes do not like their message, and are not afraid to say so. Our old habits of denunciation remain very much intact for those who stray from the straight and rightful path.

With a General Election just a year away and the crucial issue of immigration not resolved in anything near a clear fashion by Labour, it makes for quite a muddle.

For more on this topic, see Immigration and the left page.

8 June 2014

Labour's mixed-up confusion on race and diversity

The Labour Party of which I am part is hopelessly mixed up on race and diversity.

On one hand we cosy up to organised racial (Black Minority Ethnic or BME/BAME) groups and promise them special favours. But then we turn to the old white working classes that used to form the bulk of our vote, telling them we are on their side, something they are increasingly less inclined to believe, and with some reason.

This article of mine on the Spectator Coffee House blog takes a look at this mixed-up situation through a couple of interventions from shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan either side of the recent Local and European elections (click here if you want to have a look).

For more on this topic, see Identity politics and the left page.

6 June 2014

On knowledge and ignorance: Karl Popper’s legacy for today

(Part IV on Popper and contemporary ideologies)

The avoidance and attempted suppression of contradictory arguments and evidence is a typical feature of ideologies.

This tendency is also a natural feature of everyday politics of course. Practically, it is worth tolerating – though with an awareness that to tolerate something is to dislike it.

However, when we are talking about matters of truth and right, and attempts to control what is said based on exclusive authority, reserved for certain groups or people, it is a different matter. This is where authoritarianism still raises its ugly head in our supposedly liberal Western societies - including from supposedly liberal people.

As Karl Popper said in ‘On the Sources of Knowledge and Of Ignorance, a lecture given in 1960:

The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.”

The forms of Islamism and feminism I looked at in Parts II and III respectively are each grounded in assumptions that they have found ultimate knowledge of existence, that they know true reality behind and beyond the swirling chaos of human life; that they have superior knowledge and, with it, ultimate authority.

The ideologue assumes they can integrate what they do not know into their existing theoretical structures. In this way we can see the paradox that they know what they do not know, by knowing the structures into which all knowledge fits. Among other troubling consequences, this renders all actual knowledge redundant, as subservient to the system. It also defeats any idea of ethics – for if the world and the people in it are determined by systems, there is no space for choice and ethical behaviour.

As Bryan Magee has written:

If it is true, then none of us can ever refrain from anything we do. In that case any notions of good or bad, right or wrong, have no application with regard to human behaviour. It is false ever to attribute praise or blame to anyone, guilt or responsibility. ‘Ought’ never applies, nor do such concepts as ‘duty’, ‘justice’, ‘fair’. Conscience is an illusion. Every determinist, if he is sincere, must eliminate all such conceptions from his view of human beings, and also from his view of all human activities, arrangements and institutions.”

Popper’s theory of knowledge rejects this essentialism – essentialism being the idea that we can be certain about social processes and that we can see laws of inevitability in them - of essence.

With essentialism comes the right – or perhaps even the obligation – to tell others what to do. It confers authority and legitimacy on the true believers, and removes them from everyone else. It breeds unpleasantness and intolerance, as we can see from Islamist violence and the tribes of feminists warring online against each other and anyone else who dares to disagree with them.

But, as Popper demonstrates, essentialism is also essentially wrong. All the laws of nature and society that we claim to know are contingent on those things we do not know not intervening. They are therefore never completely reliable. We may claim it a law that the sun rises every morning, but one day it may not. However many times a ball bounces when we drop it, we cannot be sure it will bounce next time. There may be some factor we are not aware of that will render our laws incorrect. You cannot prove something before it has happened. To every Newton there may follow an Einstein.

This is greatly relevant today, not least on climate change. Some ‘sceptics’ in their misunderstanding mistakenly invoke Popper to scorn the idea of man-made climate change. However Popper did not believe that scientific theories like that of man-made climate change are invalid because we cannot ultimately prove them through evidence. That would lead to a classic ‘antinomy’, as we also cannot prove the opposite.

Instead, Popper believed that science progresses through critical scrutiny and by us learning from our mistakes. With climate change, we cannot finally prove it is happening nor that it is man-made, but we can make best estimates and work from them. Irrefutable proof is impossible, but that stands for all sides, and it does not mean that we cannot and should not use what knowledge we have. True, honest science means being scientists being self-critical, but not self-denying.

Popper’s legacy for today

The big weakness of Islamist, feminist and other ideologies is right here, in their claims to ultimate knowledge of the world. The advocates of these theories engage in classic authoritarian practices to defend these claims: dogmatism, aggressive censorship, segregation of insiders from outsiders, and victimisation of those who stray from the given ideological purity.

These advocates are often educated, idealistic and highly motivated, having been inspired by powerful but bad and even dangerous ideas that universalise the particular (for example the hatred of women or oppression of Muslims).

On a fragmented, half-understood level, these ideas do make some sense. But they have been so successful partly because they have no substantive political opposition – so they can easily take the whole world outside them (‘society’, or ‘the West’) as their opposition. They have meanwhile largely steered clear of any involvement in other squabbles, for example between the left and right within the Labour Party.

There is an intellectual arrogance to their ideas characteristic of 19th Century European high theory, and as we have seen from the earlier parts of this essay, they are largely derived from it. They make claims to ultimate knowledge of how things really are, of the underlying laws of existence. Any evidence of discrimination against women not taking place or of Muslims not being victimised is ignored or rejected for not fitting this deeper knowledge of how things are.

Karl Popper is probably the greatest critic of these types of high theory. In the 1940s, he tore them apart in The Open Society and Its Enemies. But now he is now shunned by the left, misappropriated by the right and ignored by intellectuals.

In their entertaining book Wittgenstein’s Poker based around a clash between Popper and Wittgenstein at Cambridge in 1946, David Edmonds and John Eidinow say:

In new democracies and closed societies, The Open Society retains its freshness and relevance...But in Britain and America, Popper is slowly being dropped from university syllabuses; his name is fading, if not yet forgotten...Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom. The attacks on dogma and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance and humility – these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.”

As we have seen, this is mightily premature. In Western Europe in the early 21st Century, we may not be living under particularly authoritarian governments, but the authoritarian mindset remains very much with us, just in different guises. It is having a significant impact on our politics too, not just through the politics of identity but through other ideologies that seek to suppress democratic ways, including those promoting supposedly ‘free’ markets.

Popper’s writings effectively attack these dogmatic ways. But he also had a deeper positive vision, of the ‘open society’, in which the only permanent restriction on democratic government should be the protection of democracy itself; that everything else should be left on the table.

As he writes, 

In a democracy, we hold the keys to the control of the demons. We can tame them. We must realize this and use the keys; we must construct institutions for the democratic control of economic power, and for our protection from economic exploitation”.

He was also adamant about the importance of morality and ethics, and ironically thought that Marx showed the way:

“[Marx underrated] the significance of his own moral ideas; for it cannot be doubted that the secret of his religious influence was in its moral appeal, that his criticism of capitalism was effective mainly as a moral criticism. Marx showed that a moral system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness, is mere hypocrisy. For our responsibility extends to the system, to the institutions which we allow to persist.
“It is this moral radicalism of Marx which explains his influence; and that is a hopeful fact in itself. This moral radicalism is still alive. It is our task to keep it alive, to prevent it from going the way which his political radicalism will have to go. ‘Scientific’ Marxism is dead. Its feeling of social responsibility and its love for freedom must survive.”

Popper’s conception of the open society in which public policies are tested thoroughly and honestly for their effectiveness should be familiar to us. But in practice – as the science writer Ben Goldacre has said – politicians are reluctant to subject their big ideas to any sort of testing. Many of our policy makers are also cautious about ceding authority and trusting in people as Popper suggested they should: “we must recognize everybody with whom we communicate as a potential source of argument and of reasonable information”.

Popper himself was not faultless by any means. While praising The Open Society as “a powerful and important book”, Gilbert Ryle for example criticised a tendency in it towards ‘vehement and sometimes venomous’ polemic, adding that “it is bad tactics in a champion of the freedom of thought to use the blackguarding idioms characteristic of its enemies”. This is fair, one example being Popper’s failure to see any value whatsoever in Hegel and Heidegger. He failed to engage with some good arguments that did not suit his polemical narrative.

In doing so, and while being nakedly partial himself, he showed little sensitivity for the quite natural tribal affiliations that people have - for example he thought the idea of national self-determination was ridiculous. On a personal level, and contrary to his own philosophy, he could be dreadfully intolerant and bullying towards those who disagreed with him; indeed his colleagues at the London School of Economics used to call him the ‘totalitarian liberal’. Popper was an outsider in Britain and always remained apart and aloof from the main currents of academic thought, which perhaps explains the relative neglect for his writings in those circles.

But no one could accuse him of avoiding the fray and hiding out in an ivory tower of obscurity and intellectuality as so many academics do. Rather than dealing with esoteric questions, his philosophy contests the real, contested world of politics in a manner which ordinary people can understand and engage with. Popper furnishes us with a practical philosophy with great depth but that we can use, not least in helping us to sort out sense from nonsense.

As Magee says, “He has never been in the eye of fashion; and, big though his reputation is, his time has yet to come.”

2 June 2014

The rise of ideological feminism (Part III on Karl Popper and contemporary ideologies)

This is the third part of a four-part essay applying the ideas of Karl Popper to ideologies that have secured particular social power in our contemporary world.

Part I presents a context in which Popper has been widely misappropriated by the right, and argues that he should be reclaimed by the liberal-left – not least because he was liberal and of the left.

Part II builds up the substance of his critique of Hegelian and Marxist ideologies and explores how contemporary political Islamism is largely based on these theories.

Part III here explores the rise of ideological feminism, with a particular focus on Laurie Penny’s writings and the strong feminist movement within the Labour Party.

As Islamism takes the Muslim, feminism takes the woman as a centre of importance and basis for political action.

There is nothing wrong with this; indeed there is nothing necessarily wrong with politicising any identity group. It is clearly necessary in situations where we need to defend ourselves against being politicised negatively by others. Also, identity often simply reflects our normal everyday attachments. Identity politics is by no means always a bad thing.

Our problems arise when the single identity marker – the woman or the Muslim for example – is universalised as fundamental to all situations and all reality. This is where it takes on a wholly different character, and is also where we can start seeing the inherent authoritarianism that comes with playing the politics of identity.

Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and one of our most prominent feminists, demonstrates this sort of fundamentalist high theory as well as anyone. Her big idea, common in feminism, is that of ‘patriarchy’, which she refers to as a ‘system’, ‘structure and a ‘fact’, propagated through slogans like ‘Destroy the Patriarchy’.

Patriarchy literally means rule by fathers, but in political writings it tends to refer to the dominance of social and political institutions by men and the existence of male hegemony in public and private life.

In support of this idea, we can see that men still occupy a clear majority of senior political, corporate and other institutional positions in most contemporary Western societies. We can also point to plenty of things from the past that might suggest at least an approximation to patriarchy for British and wider Western society: male-only voting franchises, male-only public institutions and other Rights of Man that only applied to men.

However, with these restrictions gone and women free to do and be pretty much what they choose along with men, the idea there is a system perpetuating male privilege seems strange: indeed any movement going on seems to be in the opposite direction. There is also little evidence of the moving parts that go into making up and maintaining systems.

By contrast, capitalism, a similar systemic concept, has a raft of institutions that serve to maintain it: starting on an international level with the World Bank, IMF, WTO, Davos forum, the European Single Market, countless trade agreements between nations and regional blocs, Central Banks. Moving down to national and local levels in Britain we have the Treasury, BIS and other government departments, council licensing regimes, and numerous free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – all catering and administering to the capitalist system.

This theory of patriarchy would be an almost perfect example of what Karl Popper called ‘pseudo-science’ if only its advocates claimed any sort of scientific backing. Instead feminists use the term as a free-standing fact that does not need serious evidential or logical support. The existence of patriarchy and the structures and systems which support it have to be taken on trust, on account of the ‘experience’ of the theorists (in other words, their authority, as women, or as feminists). We must entrust them with our faith just as we might trust in the existence of God.

Determined by culture

In an article explaining her politics to male critics, Penny says:

Culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour”.

To this, we can ask how ‘culture’, a something which, like ‘patriarchy’, has no form or agency, ‘hate’ anything? People hate; abstract concepts by their nature do not.

Penny also says she is withdrawing from judgement of men because she sees them as determined by sexist culture. However she also asks them to change their behaviour, which contradicts her determinism. This can only make sense if she has special powers to reach into the system and unmake the sexist culture.

She clarifies her point on this by saying,

While you, individual man...may not hate and hurt women, men as a group – men as a structure – certainly do. I do not believe the majority of men are too stupid to understand this distinction, and if they are we need to step up our efforts to stop them running almost every global government”.

The claim that men do not hate women as individuals but do ‘certainly’ hate them ‘as a group’ is baffling enough on its own; it means that when I do not hate someone I actually do hate them on some higher plain of reality, and that Laurie Penny has access to this while I do not. But the argument as a whole is more or less a carbon copy of conventional revolutionary Marxism. Penny and her fellow travellers are working to banish men from power, and indeed are willing to step up those efforts if she gets the impression most men do not agree with what she says. The proletariat in conventional Marxism is replaced by women, and the ‘vanguard’ of revolutionary Marxists is replaced with Penny and her feminist colleagues. Meanwhile the rest of us live in a state of false consciousness.

Karl Popper has argued that this sort of argument has its roots in Plato’s idea of the ‘elect’. Manifested through the Marxist-style vanguard or ‘cadre’ of activists, it is common to feminist practice just like it is to Islamism.

In mainstream politics, feminist versions of ideas like the vanguard and Gramsci’s focus on hegemony are having a significant impact– primarily on left-wing politics and institutions but also increasingly in the wider public sphere.

Systems have already been introduced in the Labour Party and other institutions including the Guardian by which women are favoured as of right. Labour has even rewritten its rules so a minimum half of internal party posts down to a micro-local level are held by women; the same with potential new members of Parliament. Not so long ago its deputy leader Harriet Harman proclaimed Labour as nothing less than “the political wing of the women’s movement”. Meanwhile efforts are being made to transplant Labour’s systems of ‘positive action’ on to the rest of society through female, racial and class quotas in the civil service, boardrooms, judiciary and maybe science labs too.

This is where the politics of identity usually ends up – in a basic preference of one identity over another, whether of gender, religious group, ethnicity, racial group, or even social class. The authoritarian mindset is ingrained into this type of politics, with claims to authority, legitimacy and even goodness tied to group membership rather than behaviour or ethics.

Among Labour feminists, the language used to justify this sort of thing is broadly the same as that used by Laurie Penny: “patriarchal society” as Stella Creasy MP calls it, “the male-dominated patriarchy in which we live” and the “cadre” of female activists (Labour Women’s Network board members Emma Burnell and Kirsty MacNeill respectively); and, according to Bex Bailey of Labour’s governing body the NEC, the structural oppression of women in society”.

The systemic aspect to this theory and its associated ideas is crucial. It provides an all-encompassing framework in which everything happening in society can be interpreted; a ready-made explanation for any problem. If the fundamental nature of society is patriarchy, then by definition everything in it is touched on, affected and coloured by patriarchy: whatever we don’t like can be laid at its door.

By ascribing sexism to an impersonal and universal social system, this ideology also strips sexist actions of personal responsibility, viewing them not as actions of people doing wrong but as representations of a patriarchal social structure. Either the system changes or nothing changes. By this way of thinking, incremental changes like the universal right to vote, unemployment insurance, free health services and state pensions, have not changed society fundamentally.

Better ways

Thankfully, not all feminism is like this.

Even back in 1992, some feminist writers were having problems with this model of universal structural female disadvantage and male misogyny (a word which literally means ‘hatred of women’). In an article, ‘Feminism and Antiracism: An Exploration of the Political Possibilities’, Caroline Knowles and Shamila Mercer say, “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.”

They add:

 “A feminist position, at a most general level, is one which enhances or defends the interests of women. Those who defend patriarchy as a theoretical explanation of the position of women are stuck with the idea that all women share a common set of interests at some general level.”

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.”

A mode of politics engaging with the details of oppression would attempt to target specific instances of it from institutions, groups and individuals based on clear evidence, and target action on them.

This would be about addressing the ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When’ and ‘Why?’ rather than sitting back and blaming everything on society.

It is a very different way of approaching things to that expressed in dominant feminist and wider identity-based narratives nowadays. One aspect of these narratives is the way the language of group ‘representation’ – of women having to be represented by women and darker-skinned people having to be represented by darker-skinned people – has become pre-eminent. There are some uncomfortable aspects to this, including the interests of those claiming to represent the oppressed being tied to the oppression. They need oppression to justify their existence, and achieving their object would remove their own reason for being. This is not a healthy type of politics.

As Popper puts it: 

the apologists of Marxism...do not see that it is the danger of any movement like Marxism that it soon comes to represent all kinds of vested interests, and that there are intellectual investments, as well as material ones.” 

We can see this with the Communist identity in the Soviet Union – once it became a pre-requisite for career advancement and entry to the nomenklatura, it lost its idealistic basis and became a malign force that stifled criticism and progress. It is not a dissimilar situation today with political feminism and the other forms of identity politics that are so integrated into the practices of the liberal-left.

Surveying the scene, the cultural sociologist Tiffany Jenkins says:

We have come a long way. But feminism has lost its way. Most of its energy is spent on demonising men, overstating our differences and neglecting what we have in common. And it has got into some fairly illiberal tangles of late, such as the witch-hunt against trolls on the internet; calls for banning lads’ mags; the Page 3 campaign; and calls for the banning of pop songs, policing everyday language as if it’s a major threat.

An alarmist mind-set is taking hold which suggests that women are too frail to deal with nasty words, and that our natural state is to need protection. It’s not quite Mary Wollstonecraft, more Mary Whitehouse. It is this that could impede further progress.” 
[End of Part III]

The fourth and final part of this essay, now up, seeks to explain Popper’s ideas on knowledge and ignorance, which have framed a lot of the arguments I have made in the first three parts. It also addresses what his legacy should be for us here and now, and points out a few problems with his work.