27 February 2015

Nietzsche, values and democratic politics

Nietzsche gets blamed for a lot of things, not least nihilism and relativism.

This is unfair, but life is unfair. As the philosopher John Gray pointed out in a talk at the London School of Economics on 25th February, a writer has little or no control over how others interpret and appropriate their writings, not least if they are dead.

On nihilism and relativism, people often misunderstand Nietzsche for having advocated what amounts to these things. But this wasn’t the case. He was rather describing what he thought had happened as historical development, largely from Christianity’s emphasis on truth which undermined itself, and philosophers like Hume and Kant exposing the insecure foundations of religion (and indeed of much positive philosophy).

A portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger explained in one of his lecture courses on Nietzsche, ‘The phrase “God is dead” is not an atheistic proclamation: it is a formula for the fundamental experience of an event in Occidental history.’

Heidegger added:

‘By nihilism Nietzsche means the historical development, i.e., event, that the uppermost values devalue themselves, that all goals are annihilated, and that all estimates of value collide against one another. Such collision Nietzsche describes at one point in the following way:

.  . . we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.’

I can see the truth of this by just looking at my personal behaviour: how I sometimes praise people for acting in one way but then praise others for acting the opposite way. I might criticise someone for being dictatorial but in the next breath criticise someone else for not being decisive and driving through their vision.

It seems that there is no way out: that we are all hypocrites and stuck in a nihilistic universe.

I don’t think this is the case though.

We should certainly accept that values do not have ultimate, rational foundations. They are not rigidly and universally applicable at all times and in all places by all people, and they are certainly not rational because positive rationality is beyond our ken.

But they do help guide us in our behaviour. We demonstrate them in our everyday lives – for example by being tolerant of some views with which we disagree, or by consulting with all members of an organisation about some major change being considered.

But these demonstrations of values only make sense in particular situations. It makes no sense to be tolerant of someone you agree with, or indeed when sitting alone reading a book. Likewise there is no reason to practise equality by consulting everyone in an organisation about which paper clips to buy. Values are only applicable in particular situations. They are situational, and not resolvable into calculation and determination.

This is the domain of real life, which is the domain of decision-making, and the domain of decision-making is the domain of politics.

Through different people demonstrating different values in their lives - both on their own and in institutional life – some values gain currency and others don’t. This is what politics is. Political parties variously stand up for and demonstrate different values, albeit falteringly and inconsistently.

Loosely, we might say that in economic terms the Conservative Party stands up for individual responsibility while Labour emphasises our responsibility to each other as part of society. Existentially, these emphases are generally reversed. Conservatives emphasise collective affiliation, group responsibility and tradition, while liberals both on the right and left are keen to detach people from these things (except when ideology intervenes, for example on the left with the upholding and protection of certain group identities like of women and ethnic minorities).

Values as such put into words and explanations the more visceral attachments that drive so much political affiliation.

In an environment in which these political affiliations are shifting and dissipating, it seems to me that anyone seeking approval from the electorate would do well to re-cast and re-emphasise what they stand for and what they pledge to demonstrate by their behaviour in office. As I wrote back in 2012, of Labour, “Asking our people to commit to a set of values would be a powerful reminder about what standards we expect of ourselves, while sending out a message to the wider world that we are principled and ethical in what we do.”

People are right to lose trust in politicians for breaking their promises, but it is surely worse if they make no meaningful pledges and promises in the first place, for in this way we have nothing to measure them by. Values in politics have their power in applying not just to policies promised but also to behaviour and those policies which have not been publicly promised (of which we can be sure there are many). Maybe that is why our political leaders tend to avoid them.

For more on not-dissimilar themes, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.

13 February 2015

Moneyball, applied to politics

I recently finished reading Michael Lewis’s book ‘Moneyball’ for the third time: a true story about how a bunch of people, mostly outsiders, challenged collective group-think in American baseball using rational, scientific methods, bringing the first team to adopt these methods (the Oakland Athletics, or ‘A’s’) remarkable success despite having less money than its rivals.

It’s impossible not to draw lessons from Moneyball and apply them to other institutions and to politics. I couldn’t resist exploring them a little here, though the most tantalising lesson we might take, of attempting a completely rational, scientific approach to politics, is one I think we should resist.

The book is largely an exploration of prejudice in institutions and how the Oakland A’s through its General Manager Billy Beane took advantage of this prejudice to play the market in players, picking up valuable underrated ones for little and selling on those who had become overrated for a lot.
Billy Beane, still GM of the Oakland 'A's

This prejudice in baseball was largely about looks, with Billy Beane in his own playing career exemplifying it. As Lewis writes it,

“He encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro ballplayer a young man might become. The boy had a body you could dream on. Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn’t imagine him filling out. And that face! Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”

Beane failed as a player and gave it up to work as a scout then as a manager. There he was lucky enough to work under someone who knew the works of Bill James.

James had started writing about baseball for a tiny audience while working as a night-watchman at a pork and beans factory in Kansas. Starting with a self-published monograph in 1977, he focused on baseball statistics, with increasingly detailed – and acerbic – explanations of how the Major League baseball community was getting badly wrong many of the things it took as self-evident.

Lewis says: “There was but one question [James] left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- and under-valued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.”

Indeed. As for politics, applying the Moneyball approach is tricky because it’s based on rationality, calculation and statistical evidence, but politics isn’t just about these things.

Sure, in the short term at least you can maximise your electoral returns by detailed polling, tailoring of messages and policies, and targeting those voters who are most likely to swing the result in your favour. But doing this means relegating or sacrificing what is perhaps the essential element of politics: that visceral element of standing up for a version of the good, and of actually seeking to make a difference (rather than just being successful in the immediate task at hand).

The story of Moneyball looked at the market for baseball players in the United States and showed how inefficient its major actors had been within it. But in politics there is nothing inherently wrong with inefficiency. Everything is in play, unlike in baseball or financial markets where the end is simple: to maximise your resources and win.

Some will no doubt respond that in politics the end of winning is the same, especially in a democracy where the interests of voted-for and voters are in theory aligned. But this view means instrumentalising politics, accepting a deterministic reality (‘the world of change’ that Tony Blair talks about for example), and negating the power of politics to change things. It is also to accept a particular political ideology that reduces the sphere of politics to one in which many of those things which could be contested – efficiency as an end in itself, for example – are not; where consensus reigns behind a cloak of antagonistic competition.

This technocratic version of politics, applying a Moneyball-type approach of maximising one’s resources to win as an end in itself, sometimes appears ubiquitous in politics nowadays. Following this path offers great temptations: of immediate success, being useful, acceptance and approval from one’s peers, and therefore promotion within institutional hierarchies.

However, it was these aspects of institutional life, the group-think and collective wisdom, that the main protagonists of Moneyball were challenging in order to win.

Voros McCracken, a blogger who was later employed by the Boston Red Sox under John Henry (who in turn now owns Liverpool Football Club), is quoted as saying:

“The problem with major league baseball is that it’s a self-populating institution. Knowledge is institutionalized. The people involved with baseball who aren’t players are ex-players. In their defence, their structure is not set up along corporate lines. They aren’t equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don’t have the mechanism to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter.”

This sort of set-up should be familiar to most people for the institutions they know and work for, including those ‘set up along corporate lines’. Group-think and collective wisdom are surely an inevitable part of life, essential for us to be able to get through life without constant misunderstandings and petty disagreements.

But they do need to be challenged for institutions to renew themselves, adapt to changing times and maintain or enhance their relevance.

McCracken points to what I think is the most important lesson for institutions like political parties to take from Moneyball besides the basic one of evaluating people based on what they can offer rather than more superficial characteristics like looks. This is that however partial they be, they should try to institutionalise the capacity and ability to evaluate internally - truthfully and honestly - what they are doing.

They can do this through internal mechanisms of criticism but also through research conducted in an impartial manner, not to make political points but to examine how truthful and also how faithful to their values (if they have any) they are being. This way they strengthen their position by anticipating and addressing good criticism before it arises from outside, while bolstering their confidence that they are being consistent with their institution’s aims. As far as I am aware, the closest approximation to this sort of thing is the commissioning of independent polling and focus groups, which is fine as far as it goes but examines surface perception rather than underlying reality within the institution.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I’m thinking that for some of our main political parties this sort of thing could be the difference between a long life of continuing relevance and a relatively quick death.

For more on not dissimilar themes, see Labour and other party politics page.

3 February 2015

A Great British Institution

I wrote the title ‘A Great British Institution’ in part to shock and surprise, but also to tell a truth.

The institution I am talking about is the Royal Marines Band.

As a lefty, I’ve been naturally suspicious of militarism, pomp and pageantry and all the rest. But checking out the the Royal Marines Band online has helped to shift my thinking, and I think what they do is worth highlighting.

I would like to blather on about why, but it’s probably best to let you judge for yourself.

I've got three videos to check out. They are:

1) The Massed Bands of H.M. Royal Marines on Birdcage Walk in London on 4th June 2014. This shows how good they are: a stunning look and sound, helped by a little birdsong on the way (9 mins long)

2) A wonderful street parade in Basel, Switzerland, on 27th July 2013 - massed crowds, in blazing heat; they put on a terrific show (18 mins long)

3) In the same Basel Tattoo: the day performance in the arena on 25th July 2013; includes a great rendition of Rod Stewart's 'Sailing' and the famous 'drumline' (15 mins including other bands joining):

For lefties like me, the sounds and the symbols – for example the colonial-style helmets – may grate and alienate, but against this are a few considerations:

1) They are bloody good. They make a great sound and have terrific discipline and co-ordination;

2) Our armed forces are no longer a colonial force. They do what the government tells them to do, and if that means fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan, that’s what they do;

3) There are a lot of women in the Royal Marines Band and other military bands. They do not seem to hold many senior positions yet, but there is certainly potential there.

The lack of ethnic minorities is perhaps a concern. But I would rather the bands play and do their thing well, and attract people in by doing that.

Once you start privileging attributes other than standards, standards will probably slip. The Royal Marines Band is perhaps the best of its kind in the world. I'm thinking we would do better to emphasise that these bands and the military behind them represent the whole of Britain. There should be no closed shops and no favouritism.

But we should do what we can to make people welcome, not least because institutions can become set in their ways, alienating those who are not used to their particular cultures. 

For more on not dissimilar themes, see Britain - society and economy page