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Friday, July 13, 2007

Debate-it : Is Pragmatism Ballsing-up left-right?

Someone was going to use it in a title, so there it is. Bear with me here, the argument of this article takes quite a while to get going...
This post started out with the intention of arguing (in an analagous way to how Francis Fukyama discussed history) that the left-right political spectrum is dead. However, en route it became clear that this view was untenable; it exists alright, but in a definitively different form. It would be easy to point to consensus as the end of left-right, but Thaterism exposed the political bergschrund of the spectrum and reopened the debate once more; indeed, consensus only became a universal term for 45-79 after Thather had mixed things up.

My argument would have it that the old Left, the John McDonnells and such of Britain, and the "Third Way" followers (proponents of Anthony Giddens), who, with the David Davises and Thatcherites of our nation, make up the left-right picture, are competing for the same ends justified by differing means. Old left-right politics was about the Right, conservative, traditional parties, competing for a strong system of law and order, strong defence and strong moral values, competing for these ends against the liberal, open, equal, and pacifist Left. Of course the lessons from totalitarian Communism obscure the open and liberal properties listed above. But the message is the same; the political spectrum wanted different outcomes. The Attlees wanted social justice and equality in a war-torn economy, whilst the right wingers believed in stopping immigration, and restoring the class system society. The expansion of the franchise brought about the mellowing of the left-right I would like to explore.

A proletariat numerical voting majority, along with the crucial rise in people power and consumer sovereignty in the 1980s and 90s, has forced governments to be far more accountable to societal wants. Britain is centrist, by spectrum definition, unless the unlikely "median voter theorem" is believed, and as such, both main parties, evidenced by the rhetoric today, are also obliged to be centrist. Unlike the past, the left and the right both aspire to the same ends, by increasingly confused means. The Conservatives want climate action, they want social justice, they want equality of life, and so on. In true Paternalistic One Nation Conservatism, the rhetoric is working. (New) New Labour are talking of social change to electoral accountability, and so on. Both parties are aspiring to give power back to the people, reducing the Westminster Leviathan, and here lies the clear-cut evidence tha would make one believe left-right is dead. But it isn't. The differing means by which we achieve these social ends are still evident.

Tories are generally, today, Thatcherite on economic matters. And economic matters are the means to deliver different social ends. They act on poverty, the need for a welfare system, to cost of the NHS and public services. In short, economics now steers the spectrum. But, here lies, finally (!) my argument. It is confused, mismanaged, and generally bad economics that fuel this debate. Tories are right wing economist. But they don't know why. They just are. Labour is generally, not holding the Blair crew, left wing in economics (although they have been very clever, and very acceptable to the right under Brown), right down to the Fabian Ed Balls, orchestrator of the Brown Chancellorship. But again, with the exception of Balls, they don't particularly know why. Both parties have formed a political identity, and have taken their economic beliefs as part of the baggage.

The title of this post means to ask how confusion of economics, and electoral vote buying, is killing the true message of left-right. The central evidence is the appointment of Alistair Darling as Chancellor. Continutity in the two greatest offices of state has been a central tenet of the New Labour success story, and as such it would be "prudent" for Brown to have selected a Chancellor he wished to keep. Ed Balls is a Harvard and Oxford educated economist, and would possibly be the best placed man in London to take over at a Labour Treasury. But, pragmatism in the voting system and electoral experience denied him this job. The path by which a Fabian means to a common ends could have been achieved was blocked, meaning confusion as to the true economic message of the left now rings out. The Tories too have little idea, it seems, of their economic gospel.

The conclusion here (yes, there is a conclusion somewhere in the above dawdle) is that political pragmatism is ruining the only visible way in which left-right can now be observed. Ends on social issues have converged but the economic locomotive of means have not, yet an incoherent economic message is blocking the way to even witness the true intentions of the left (or right) on economic matters.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Debate-it : Back Online

After a very lengthy delay, we are back in our new form, a whole year wiser too. We appeared to have been taken offline for a while due to technical problems, and so the site lived on at http://doodle-sketch.blogspot.com/. There are still hiccups; individual post pages appear to have no pictures (!) and some of the archive pages will not work, but hopefully this will be resolved soon enough. In the meantime, most of the content is still available from the previous incarnation.

Edit: The pictures should be fixed and the post pages should have the same look as the main page now. Some of the archive pages still don't work though.

Friday, September 29, 2006

CJP : Le Marquis de Sade et la conformité

How do you spot an iconoclast? Perhaps they wear unusual trousers; perhaps the absence of trousers is a more reliable sign. Probably not. What is more likely is that their acts and writings are so consistently distinct from their age that they cannot merely be designated an 'aberration', or the person in question dismissed as just plain insane. Thus end my preliminary remarks; thank you for suffering them - assuming that anyone reading this sentence has done so, or perhaps has, wisely, skipped the crap - and patiently waiting for me to declare the question that this essay will at least attempt to discuss: does the Marquis de Sade (Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte de Sade to his fans) deserve his reputation as a radical?

With an absolute absence of any references to Lacanian psychoanalysis (because it's wilfully opaque/unrelated and I'm just name-dropping), mirroring and reflection are how I perceive Sade's intellectual 'achievements'. For the sake of clarity, the image produced by a mirror is not what is 'genuinely' - let's not trouble ourselves with the concerns of appearance and reality; it's simply not worth it - there: the image is the object's inverse. This ostensibly irrelevant digression on mirrors does serve some purpose because it suitably illustrates the 'accomplishments' of Sade. His thought isn't an intellectual rupture; it consists in the erection (ah, the joys of puerile punning!) of a credal mirror: 'whatever you believe I believe the opposite. You disapprove of sodomy' - not homosexuality since this word and concept was a late-nineteenth century invention - 'I don't. You believe incest, bestiality, torture, murder, and an interminable number of conceivable depravities are immoral; to me they're perfectly acceptable. To morality', to quote the Beatles, ''you say yes, I say no''. Thus ends my inept paraphrase of Sade's 'principles' (if such usage is not paradoxical when referring to peremptory permissiveness).

I hope the previous paragraph suitably evinces the simplistic nature of the Marquis de Sade's 'thought'. However, simplicity does not necessarily imply the absence of radicalism. What does is the nature of the simplicity - the basic (or just base) inversion of morality and beliefs. This affirmation of the opposite of what society believes has, by the superficiality of the reversal, the effect contrary to that intended. In stressing the other Sade conversely reaffirmed the norm. This might initially seem odd, but, as in the case of a mirror, to produce an image (Sade's 'iconoclasm') an object (late-Enlightenment ethical standards) to reflect was required, thus causing him to have been absolutely and necessarily acting and thinking within the bounds of his society, to the extent that he was utterly dependent upon the object he wished to invert. His position was therefore one of unbounded subservience and passivity - conformity in dependence.

In his analysis of Sade and the anonymous author of My Secret Life in his Hisory of Sexuality: Volume 1, Michel Foucault emphasises another aspect of Sade's conformity. The philosopher comments that 'rather than seeing in this singular man a courageous fugitive from 'Victorianism' that would have compelled him to silence, I am inclined to think that, in an epoch dominated by (highly prolix) directives enjoining discretion and modesty, he was the most naive representative of a plurisecular injunction to talk about sex'. I see conformity in Sade because he is reliant on that which he rejects; Foucault goes further: the act of rejecting is itself concomitantly an act of conforming. For these reasons, le Marquis de Sade est un exemple peu compliqué d'un conformiste.

[No pretence - merely the ineluctable pursuit of variety. Next time it'll probably end with something like 'Shantih shantih shantih' - maybe there'll be an epigraph, too: 'Only Connect!' or some such Forsterian rubbish]

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ben : If it looks like a dog but purrs like a cat, it must be John Reid

So the big Labour love fest that was party conference ended with speeches from the two Labour attack dogs, Prescott and Reid. Prescott was his usual bullish self, bar one brief apology, but Reid seemed to try and add to his tough man image by showing a more human side to himself. His speech was one of a prospective leadership, focusing not just on the Home Office, but on leadership, on the Conservatives, on the NHS and even on foreign policy.

He opened with a friendly nod to those critical of him, joking about negative comments made in the press and showing a letter from trade unionists who are opposed to him becoming leader. It is this warmth and humour that Reid may bring to the fore more often not least because they are traits Gordon Brown lacks. If this is the case Reid may well need some better speechwriters, the old crack about David Cameron "I thought I was indecisive but i'm not so sure now" shows Reid still doesn't come close to Blair for sharpness of comments.

It is clear from Reid's speech he is focusing more on two of the three electoral colleges, he said nothing that would appease the trade unions, yet he did say things that will strike a chord with the public and Labour Pary members in genereal. Most notably distancing himself from the US by stating we should 'tell George Bush when he's wrong'. It is with Labour MPs however where Reid needs to work on, newsnight showed he was a hit with the public, but what may swing the leadership contest towards Reid is the resentment many cabinet members are said to feel towards Brown, most notably voiced by Charles Clarke.

Reid's speech was by no means the highlight of the final conference day, that moment being when John Prescott announced this would be his last conference as deputy leader. Thank God for that.

Britain_, The Parties_, Ben_,

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Spenny : Coursework chaos?

It may be overshadowed in recent days by the Labour conference, the re-ignition of the Blair-Brown row and the failed health vote, but Labour has admitted (in not so many words) a staggering failure of the education system - the coursework modules. For the last 20 years, since the GCSEs were established over the more traditional essay-based O levels, coursework has played an ever increasing role in the British education system. And whilst the broadening of the system to further include those who are stressed witless during the exam season is most excellent in theory, it was hijacked by those most unscrupulous individuals: those who abused the system and cheated (myself included!).

Before we go on, it must be said that I didn't cheat per se, more like my school cheated. But therein lies the fault of the system. Schools are pressurised for results. If 99% of students don't get A*+ in every exam, the school is closed down and stripped for parts, the students sold for slave labour and every other teacher must donate a kidney to pay off the debt (or something like that). So what do schools do? Unable to boost the exam grades any further than making the exams easier (which benefits everyone but the students), they turn to 'helping' students with their independent coursework. Every science class we were in gave model answers for all our coursework needs, our maths teacher left a copy of the markscheme lying about and our English teacher gave such good notes that when strung together with a few conjuctives gave me several A*++ essays. Perhaps telling is the fact that the two essays for which we were left to fend for ourselves, I managed a low B in - something I am still unjustifiably proud of right now.

And ours was a good school. I know of some schools that refused to help in this way, with predictable results and an ever increasing circle of failure as funds were denied; and some that went even further, providing them with study guide books and telling students where certain websites were that 'helped' for a small fee. Because that was the price we paid for coursework. What was passable as an A-grade essay in an exam would be placed in the reject pile in coursework. You either made an essay worthy of Shakespeare, or you fell by the wayside and settled for your 29/30 (which was most probably a D).

And so steps in our current government. Firstly they have banned maths coursework, which involves far too much English to warrant the subject, and have now placed coursework under 'supervision' with time restraints. Surely this is just an extra long boring exam? How does this benefit those who don't thrive in an exam environment? Did they think through the extra time and effort needed by overstretched schools to implement this? I think not. This will, I can safely assume, impact on teaching for the exams (or push them back to the joy of students), which means further reductions in grades. And annotated texts were banned in exams only last year, something which were more than a crutch in my exams.

So, when next year's results are published with predictably high pass rates, don't moan that exams are getting easier. Because without any oppurtunities to cheat in skillful ways like we did, GCSE and A level students are thrown in at the deep end with 100% exams (essentially) without any help or resources. The 20 year experiment is over. Coursework is dead. Long live exams...

Britain_, Misc_, Spen_, etc_, ...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

SPL : British politics can't cope with diversity

I'm currently reading Arend Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy, which analyses government forms and performance in thirty-six countries. His basic argument is that majoritarian systems of government, as typified by the Westminster model, are ineffectual and perhaps even undemocratic; whereas consensual constitutions, seen in Switzerland and Belgium, are more able to cater for as many people as possible, rather than just a majority, be it absolute or plural.

The most interesting argument is that consensual systems are particularly desirable - nay, necessary - in countries with large social divides. For instance, the Belgium constitution entails a formal requirement that the executive include representatives of the large linguistic groups. Proportional representation is used in Northern Ireland (except for House of Commons elections) due to the plural nature of that society, with its Protestant-Catholic cleavage; this has been the case since the troubles of the 1960s and '70s. One of the most ethnically/socially divided socities in the world at the moment - Iraq - also has a consensual model: all three of the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups are represented in the national government; and, while the success of the model is yet to be proven, it is surely undisputed that if Iraq adopted an adversarial system (akin to Britain's), civil strife would be many times greater.

Given these international assessments, what lessons can be drawn for Britain? Since 9/11 especially, ours has been a polarised society. There was always a danger of this happening: a tacit policy of multiculturalism has allowed for segregated residential communities and thus segregated schools and other public services. International events have brought these inequalities to light. As a direct consequence of the two evils of centralisation and majoritarianism, the British constitution has manifestly failed to engender a sense of national unity among Muslim communities in particular. That is not to say that minority groups should ever dictate policy beyond their number - but it is to allow for the possiblity that minority opinion may become conventional wisdom, as has happened over Iraq. The British constitution is unable to cope with such a sea-change in public opinion, and, coupled with the increasingly diverse nature of society, one must conclude that Westminster politics as we know it is surely doomed. It is in the self-interest of all three of the party leaders - Cameron, (probably) Brown and Ming - to pioneer electoral reform. It is only a matter of time.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

CJP : Popular Culture

By its definition popular culture has 'mass appeal'. Such 'appeal' necessitates the inclusion of generally accepted sensibilities and attitudes - or at least what appear to be so - and the exclusion of that which deviates from these norms. Conventionalisation or simple disapproval of minority attitudes are not the only prominent features of popular culture - absolute disregard, concomitantly an attitude of silence and an affirmation of their non-existence, is frequently evinced. Evidently proscriptive and unconsciously prescriptive, popular culture doesn't merely reflect the concerns of modern society: it defines and regulates them.

Arrant disregard of minority concerns is evidently pernicious since it curtails our ability to empathise with the point of view of another and because it leads to the ossification of cultural boundaries. However, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, the concept of popular culture does not preclude the possibility of minority concerns and issues being considered in its works; the manner in which these are treated is the problem. For it to remain popular the treatment must function within severely restricted bounds. As an example, consider the character of Shaun in Coronation Street. He perfectly fits the stereotypically histrionic and camp image of gay men. A few years ago there was another character named Todd, who, eventually, also turned out to be gay. However, his homosexuality was explicitly presented as being the source of all his troubles: the breakdown of his marriage and his social and familial ostracism all directly stemmed from his apparent inability to control his desires; being gay was clearly presented as a malign affliction. These two characters are merely examples of the general attitude of popular culture toward minorities: if their issues are not simply ignored, almost deemed taboo, they are treated in a manner that either condemns them (Todd) or presents their behaviour within accepted bounds (Shaun), thus leading to its conventionalisation.

Providing a particular impetus to popular culture in past few years has been the post-modern anthropological doctrine of cultural relativism. By preaching that no culture or cultural form is superior to any other it has become acceptable for cultural objects to be equated with one another - Eastenders and Casualty are supposedly as valuable as Endymion and Coriolanus. I cannot repudiate this; the argument is apparently unassailable. However, such an approach is, I believe, insidiously myopic. In furthering the almost imperialistic tendencies of popular culture, the liberal notion of cultural equivalence has engendered a situation in which an especially effective and ubiquitous means of repression has obtained a degree of power that appears almost immovable: its dominance ensures that the normal remains so and that the abnormal is normalised.

It is thus quite ironic, then, that the liberal attitude to the arts is a politically conservative one. If this is unacceptable a conservative attitude to the arts is almost equally so in its aesthetic punctiliousness and unquestioning acceptance of the cultural hegemony of 'the classics'. Perhaps the only approach that does not entail either political re-affirmation or intellectual subservience is that of aesthetic radicalism. Fundamental to such a stance is the tenet that every work must be individually and meticulously considered. This ought to lead to the formation of a new cultural canon for each person, which by its inherent variety ought to lead to a greater measure of social and political empowerment. Evidently, however, attending such an endeavour are the constraints of subjectivity and one’s social context: because of repeated endorsement we are predisposed to attest to the greatness of certain authors, composers, painters etc.; Joyce, Stravinsky and Caravaggio will probably still be thought of as some of the finest artists in human history. With aesthetic radicalism their positions in the personal canons of most people would, however, be demonstrably justifiable.

Of course, works, such as those by the artists mentioned in the previous paragraph, presently deemed to be of minority or scholarly interest would, if embraced by the general population, automatically become pieces of popular culture. Hence, it could be claimed that any drive to redirect attention away from soaps and toward Seneca is inherently self-contradictory, since the latter will only replace the former, and watching it would merely evince a different sort of conformity. My wish is not, however, for some form of cultural paternalism conducted by an intellectual elite; what I advocate is cultural selectivity. This is an intrinsic part of aesthetic radicalism. Such an approach specifically entails heterogeneity: German opera, Stanley Kubrick films, Henry James novels, Japanese Noh drama, and analytic cubism are all perfectly various preferences; their diversity positively encourages tolerance, reflection and disinterested empathy.

So, rather than submitting to popular culture and allowing it subtly to become the social, moral and political guide to one's life - in a manner akin to that of religion or nationalism - I feel that we all ought to reject its generalities, banalities and conventionalities in favour of a much more aesthetically radical approach to culture.

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