Tag Archives: capitalism

What’s left of what I believe

XKCD strip on nihilism
NaBloPoMo November 2012The main reason I’ve allowed this blog to fall into misuse over the past couple of years is that I stopped writing about politics. While my original concept behind this blog was always to write in the intersection between politics and geekery, at some point – specifically in May 2010 – I decided I could no longer really afford to vent my undiluted spleen about the state of the nation and had to start being a little more diplomatic and careful about what I say.

The problem is, I’m a little all-or-nothing and being careful quickly lead to me saying nothing at all. I figured it would get easier once the spotlight was off after the AV referendum; it didn’t. I figured I could be much less careful after I’d quit the party and thus my views became instantly irrelevant in the media’s eyes, but at that point I acquired a new problem: how can I write about politics without it either coming across as or actually being score settling following my resignation? I exchanged one set of anxieties for another and sclerosis quickly settled in once again.

And so, here I am, writing a blog about politics – which once again is really all about me. This is my problem in a nutshell. All I can do is plead for sympathy from you, dear reader: after 16 years, quitting a political party really is a big deal. It’s a wrench. It is no surprise at all that nearly eight months on I’m still a little defined by it. But at least you now know why it is that I’d much rather be writing about comics or, if you’ve seen my tumblr, even more esoteric things.

My article in September about quitting the Liberal Democrats had an interesting response. It was surprisingly positive, but I found it strange how so many people told me that they either loved or hated it but didn’t really engage with the issues at all. I had several Clegg loyalists tell me how much they loved it; curious given that I was not exactly nice about him. My favourite response was from a friend who told me that he agreed with “35% of it”. It was a strangely precise figure, yet he wouldn’t expand on what he actually meant by it.

Most of the negative feedback I did get from it, other than the abuse, centred around the accusation that I was being cynical and didn’t have anything constructive to say. I think the latter was fair comment and pretty much sums up where I am politically at the moment, but there is a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think I am cynical – indeed my decision to quit the party was about as far from cynical as it was possible to get. I took the decision to walk away rather that to stay on the inside and just feel bitter about things. The fact that I don’t have a fully worked out alternative to what the Lib Dems, and for that matter, politics more widely, doesn’t make me a cynic – it just makes me average.

But yes, I am a political nihilist at the moment, and as someone used to having a cause I can assure you that’s far more of a problem for me than it is for anybody else. All I have is a few scraps of ideas about what a possible way forward might look like, and they can be summed up as follows:

  • Triangulation is a doomed strategy for any political party – doubly so if you aren’t either Labour or the Conservatives. The people leading the political debate right now are the outliers who are working outside of the political mainstream but are successfully shifting the centre-ground to their direction simply by being well organised and disciplined. Right now, sadly, for the most part that means the weird axis of economic libertarians and social authoritarians who are exemplified by the Tea Party in the US but operate in different forms around the world. They aren’t succeeding electorally, but they don’t really need to. Everyone else is dancing to their tune.
  • Capitalism as we know it needs to die. Not trade, not commerce, but the system which commodifies and seeks to squeeze wealth from everything from people to ideas and natural resources is utterly anathema in terms of what humanity needs to do to survive the next millennium. That means critically reassessing what we regard as capital and property and thus what we believe can and cannot be owned. I feel I’ve just used a load of meaningless words there, but it makes sense to me. In terms of specific examples this means a fundamental shift from income and sales taxes onto things like land value taxation, and a massive global crackdown on the drift widening intellectual property laws to mean that every aspect of our culture ultimately becomes owned by a corporation out to make a quick buck.
  • It’s too bloody easy to blame the politicians. Our politico-economic system and media have infantilised the public, but as information technology spreads so does the onus on individuals to accept responsibility for the health of their democracy and culture. We have the tools to create a much better world, yet most people just sit there like good little consumers waiting for someone else to do it for them, and consider passively shrugging about it to be the mature response for when they don’t.

Beyond that? I’m lost. I have no idea about how you take those notions and turn them into something tangible which has any chance of being implemented. But I’m thinking about it – a lot. And perhaps I should write about it here a bit more often.

Another thing to blame on secularism

Each week, the Guardian provides a religious person a written version of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day in the form of its column Face to faith. This week it is the turn of a chap called Nicholas Buxton, who has written on the familiar subject of ‘secularists just follow a different kind of religion.’

Now, I don’t disagree that some secularist ideologues tend to evangelise with religious fervour. But where these examples of such religiosity creep in it tends to be in spite of whatever ideology, school or theory they are espousing, not because of it. Darwin is not responsible for the drivel of Herbert Spencer. Marx, famously, was not a Marxist. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is a stark contrast to a religious faith, it’s very raison d’etre is living your life with a wholly certain worldview.

More to the point, Buxton appears to lump ideologies, schools and theories in together. Marxism is a political ideology. Freudianism is a school. Darwinism is a theory. The latter is rooted in the scientific method, and is only a theory because it is, by definition, falsifiable. So if people are clinging to it in a faith-like way, they are rejecting the scientific method. Care to name some names?

Marxism and psychoanalysis aren’t, so far as I am aware, even that. They are approaches that people use from time to time to develop hypotheses, but what’s important is whether those hypotheses have validity, not the ideology or school itself. Both have tended to fall in or out of fashion over the years depending on their ability to explain the world. By contrast, you don’t find evangelical academics publishing papers on how Adam’s fall from grace explains why anti-social behaviour has become endemic in post-industrial western countries. Theologians aren’t under anything like the pressure to adequately explain the world, and seldom do so in a way that has any practical application.

So, ultimately, Buxton is comparing apples and oranges here. He then becomes even sillier:

One outcome of this post-Enlightenment disenchantment is that the world, indeed life itself, has become a commodity subject to economic forces that we have as little control over as the weather. With God as capital, every aspect of life gets translated into the language of economic transactions: passengers become customers, patients become clients. Where once we were souls, we are now consumers. And the problem with this is that when everything has a price, nothing has any value; especially vague notions such as human rights and dignity. In the market state, greed is good and the maximisation of profit is the only viable ethic.

In the days of the Roman empire Christians were called atheists because they did not worship the gods of the state. We have come full circle: Christians are once again atheists and heretics because they do not worship the “gods” of today’s orthodoxy. Now that atheism is the new “religion”, religion is the new “atheism”. To be a Christian in such circumstances is to be unconventional and nonconformist: it is to be something of a freethinker, espousing a radical vision of human flourishing that shows us how we can be more than what we are, rather than reducing us to less than what we should be.

Where do I start? The commodification of human life began a long time before the Enlightenment. Christians like to claim the credit for the abolition of the slave trade, but it was the Enlightenment which made it possible*. Before then, the Church was a political body which was perfectly happy to treat the hoi polloi as so much fodder to work on its land and fight and die in its wars. Trendy lefty though I may be, I’m much happier being a post-Enlightenment ‘consumer’ than a pre-enlightenment ‘soul’.

You also only have to look around you to see that there are plenty of Christians who are perfectly happy to treat us as consumers. Brian Souter is hardly the poster child for corporate social responsibility. Thatcher, the vanguard of neoliberalism in the UK, was hardly famous for her atheism: Reagan and his spiritual heir George Bush are famous for their faith.

Once again, we find a religious writer seeking to blame atheists and secularists for a mess that religion is at best passively, at worst actively, complicit in. What Buxton fails to mention when he attempts to draw an analogy between the Christian experience in the 21st Century Britain with that of the early Christians’ in ancient Rome (ha!), is that those Romans tended to distort and lie about what the Christians actually believed in order to justify their attacks. As I’ve blogged before, while atheists are losing their shyness in attacking religion, the blatant distortion all appears to be coming the other way.

* Before anyone points it out, yes, I am aware that the Enlightenment would not have been possible without the Church. But I’m also aware that it was dependent on Islam. We have a rich history of religions’ support of science and reason that anti-secularists would have us ignore. The purpose of this article is not to caricature organised religion as fundamentally indefensible but rather to rebut the increasingly prevalent claims that secularism is responsible to all the ills in the world.