Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Month: July, 2012

Letter to the Prime Minister

Dear Mr Cameron (can I call you Dave?),

I am not accustomed to writing fan mail, but I thought I would make a rare exception.  Back in 2005, when you became the leader of the Conservative party, you said that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’.  I just wanted to express my wholehearted agreement – it was as I am sure you are aware a very clever speech.  New Labour stopped believing in society a long time ago, and it had reached the point where believing in it was treated a little like the belief that there were fairies at the bottom of the garden.  No wonder your comments caught people’s imaginations.  But you seem to have gone off this idea a little – you haven’t expressed it recently, and I am curious about why this is the case.

The thing is, it seems to me that the words that you said then are even more relevant today than they were at the time.  You are an intelligent man, and I think you already have a good idea about what society means.  In the same speech, you said ‘I believe that if you trust people and give them more power and control over their lives, they become stronger, and society becomes stronger too, and I believe profoundly that we are all in this together.’  Indeed we are: society is about the people working together, helping each other to build the self-respect that is needed for flourishing lives and flourishing communities.  As you rightly observe, people need to be given power and control over their lives in order to do this – we don’t exist in a vacuum, and freedom is an empty concept when looked at on a purely individual level.  Individual autonomy is only possible when people are allowed that power and control over their own circumstances within a wider community.  I must say that it is refreshing to see a conservative leader who recognises this.

So that is society, and I observe its workings every day.  It includes my family, who offer each other mutual help and support.  It also includes my network of friends, and the way that relationships of this kind make life worth living.  But beyond that, it extends to wider communities – for me I see it both in the town where I was born and the one where I live now, and also in my work in the university, where I have been helping to educate university students and participating in research activity with my colleagues, who are a great source of support and advice.

This is quite clearly not the same thing as the state.  Under the control of your government, many of my family and friends are probably very grateful for the clear way in which you have demonstrated this.  Some of them have experienced debilitating medical conditions, and have been waiting for months without treatment.  Others have been seriously affected by workplace stress resulting in part from public sector cuts and increasing workloads that have gone along with them.  Some of my friends have had state benefits removed with very little notice, because having a good day when you go for a medical assessment means that you are fit to do a full time job every day, and do not need to pay for bills, rent and food in the meantime.  Perhaps all this may have seemed harsh at the time, but the important thing is that it reinforces your message.  Some of these people were probably under the illusion that the state was an embodiment of society – it was a good move to help them see that this was a misapprehension.

Of course, this message has been broadcast much more widely than my immediate circle of family and friends, and I thought it might please you that your hard work has not gone unnoticed.  Your efforts have been particularly apparent in the numbers of young men who are sleeping rough on the streets of my family’s home town – there were none before, only ‘hidden homeless’.  This is a very imaginative way of illustrating what we should not expect the state to do for us, and I’d like to congratulate you on this bold and courageous method of political education.

I have even noticed the fruits of your grand project in my workplace.  Students graduating during your time in office are unsure about whether they will find jobs, and since they are mostly under 25, it is not clear how or whether they will be able to get by in the meantime.  What an exhilarating way to begin your first few steps beyond university education!  Just to think, if they had walked straight into public sector jobs, or had funding for postgraduate study, their lives would have been mapped out for them.  Far better to give them the freedom that comes with not knowing what the future holds.  I can identify with their excitement – the current organisation of the Higher Education sector and the funding that it receives means that my own future is an equally open horizon.  I would not be able to say the same thing if I had an employment contract for next academic year.  All those in my situation, together with postgraduates who are entering the academic job market are bound to share in this sentiment.

My colleagues who remain in the department face an exciting new era too.  Past generations of British students (for example, many of those studying at our top universities in the 1980s) did not fully recognise the value of an academic education.  Making its value evident in £9000 annual fees will help students to understand that value in the appropriate way.  They will be especially appreciative of academics rising to the challenge of providing high quality teaching in the face of reduced staff and resources.  There will of course be some who feel they cannot afford the new fees: a big society requires people to occupy all sorts of different roles – what better way to make young people feel socially included than by letting them know their place in the community from an early age?

You truly are giving us all the power and control over our lives that you promised, and this is all thanks to your vivid demonstrations of the fact that society is not the same thing as the state.  I now realise that you have been absolutely right all along.  What your party needs to do now is to emphasise this message – we are all in it together, and we are now more in it than ever before.  We need to get beyond the juvenile delusion that the state is there to help us, and you have proved that you are the right man to communicate this vital idea.

Your comrade,



BBC Censorship and ‘Englishness’

My next post on this blog was going to be a reasonably thoughtful considered piece on the links between feminism and environmental philosophy and activism. In general, what I want to do here is provide some food for thought about theories and ideologies, and how they translate into concrete events in the real world.  Unfortunately I feel unable to live up to that today because I am really, really pissed off.

Over the past couple of days, I started hearing reports of a court ruling preventing the BBC from broadcasting a docu-drama on last summer’s riots.  Apparently this had all been done highly secretly, and no details of the reasons for the decision, or the judge involved, could be released.  To start with I was doubtful about this – the sorts of sites that I read can sometimes be populated by the sorts of conspiracy nuts who will make mountains out of microbes. But when I read the report in The Guardian, it seems fairly clear that this actually happened.

The BBC has not reported this in the radio news, and so far as I am aware it has not been covered on BBC television.  From what has been reported, it sounds as though they are extremely limited in what they are able to say about it until the result of their appeal comes through.  One explanation that has been offered is that some footage and accounts offered in the programme may prejudice trials.  This does not justify the levels of secrecy that surrounded the ruling.  Why, for example, are we not told the identity of the judge involved, and why was this reason not originally offered for pulling the programme?  The only way that it could be argued that supplying this information would ‘prejudice’ criminal proceedings would be to maintain that wider general cultural attitudes to the riots could themselves bias the jury.

It is interesting to consider how this fits (or doesn’t) with the ideologically muddled stuff that we get from the coalition.  On one hand, it is quite consistent with the idea that the state has some role in cultivating a ‘big society’, where people have the right kinds of attitudes and influences (we don’t want to ruin the Olympics now, do we? Better not riot, strike, complain… in fact anything other than a grin of patriotic subservience is unacceptable).  On the other hand, Cameron and co.’s reaction to anyone trying to explain the cultural and economic factors behind the riots was to conflate explanation with excuse.  Any attempt to look beyond the (undeniable) responsibility of the violent individual was effectively dismissed as supporting criminality.

This is also very much in line with the current slashing of support for the arts, humanities and social sciences in universities.  Many practitioners of these disciplines demonstrate extremely effectively the significance of society and culture.  It makes sense then to brand them as excusers of violence and threats to Englishness. Except that it doesn’t: making such a claim relies on the very assumptions about the role of culture that the claim itself denies.  This, as I talked about a little in a previous entry, is a clash between One Nation Conservatism and Thatcherite right-libertarianism that has the Conservative party in a huge muddle. [N.B. At this point I discovered that the Guardian article has been pulled from the website.  Even more pissed off now! A version that I copied and pasted last night can be seen in my previous blog entry]

This follows in the wake of the G4S screw-up.  I call it a screw-up because I genuinely believe that that is what it was – incompetence is a lot more common than collusion – but the upshot of it is that during the Olympics there will be a large military presence in the capital.  We are supposed to be grateful for this.  In fact, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in interview that if we are stopped and searched by a soldier, we ought to thank them for doing so much to help us.  That is not what our leaders should be telling us: it is more like something out of unimaginatively conceived BDSM pornography.

This goes along with the restrictive version of ‘Englishness’ that I talked about in my post a few days ago (  It is dangerous and unpatriotic not to buy into all elements of this.  We are simply not playing the game if we do not wave flags, obsess about ‘our boys’ and generally behave like good little citizens who mend and make do, hold street parties in the face of austerity and love the Queen.

Furthermore, we do not have a government that represents the people.  The Libdems and Labour stood in the last election as parties of the left/centre-left.  If you add the seats that they won to the seats won by other parties which were not part of the main three, there was a clear left of centre majority in parliament.  I am not opposed to the notion of coalition government, but I am opposed to unrepresentative coalitions.  Due to a combination of cowardice and a certain amount of completely value-devoid pragmatism on the part of the liberal democrats, we have a right-wing government, as is becoming increasingly starkly evident in the appalling injuries that they are inflicting on welfare and equality in our country.  This is not what we voted for.

So we have overblown patriotism (I’m not anti-patriotism, but I despise it in this form), soldiers on the streets, an unrepresentative government, and censorship of the media.  I do not want to live in a country like that.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to emigrate anytime soon.  What I mean is that I do not want the country that I live in, and love, to be like that.  My brilliant housemate (Philosopher, Green Party, Occupy Movement) has put a poster on the landing wall that makes me smile whenever I’m on my way to the loo.  It quotes Camus: ‘I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice’.

Some people might regard this post as an over-reaction.  After all, we do not live in the sort of state that ‘unrepresentative government, media censorship, soldiers on the streets…’ evokes.  Given recent world events, it would be crass and unjustified for me to make comparisons with military dictatorships, and that is not what I want to do.  People are not getting bombed and gunned down, and journalists are not being threatened with violence.  The situation is simply not comparable, and I despair of internet conversations that descend into that kind of crass comparison.  However, a healthy and flourishing society does not just depend on the absence of physical violence.  It also depends on people’s thought and ideas to be disseminated without obstruction.  This requires material and economic conditions that allow people an equal voice, it depends on being able to live without intimidation, and relatedly it depends on the recognition that our culture, traditions and identities are our own, and cannot be imposed upon us from above.

[N.B. While I was writing this, an amended version of the Guardian’s original article has appeared, which would appear to back up my ‘cultural influence’ interpretation:  The report on which the BBC programmes are based, entitled ‘Reading the Riots’ can be viewed here:]

BBC Documentary Pulled Following Court Ruling

The article below was removed from The Guardian’s website around lunchtime today [See my later post for comment on this]

Copied and pasted from The Guardian website, 19/07/2012 at 00.53am

BBC lawyers consider formal appeal over court ban on riots drama

Police in front of a burning car during riots in Hackney in August 2011. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Read by 1,102 people

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Lawyers ponder challenge to ruling preventing docu-drama from being broadcast ‘by any media until further order’

Lawyers for the BBC are considering making a formal appeal against a court order that has banned the corporation from showing a dramatised film about the experiences of rioters who took part in last summer’s disorder.

The ruling from a judge prevented the docu-drama, which had been due to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday, from being broadcast “by any media until further order”.

The channel’s executives were forced to pull the film, which is based on the testimony of interviews conducted for the Guardian and London School of Economics research into the disorder.

A second BBC film in the two-part series, which is based on personal interviews with police officers and was scheduled for broadcast on Wednesday, is also banned under the order.

For legal reasons, the Guardian cannot name the judge who made the ruling, the court in which he is sitting or the case he is presiding over. However, it is understood that lawyers for the BBC strongly object to his ruling, the nature of which is believed to be highly unusual.

Hours before Monday’s programme was due to be aired, the BBC tried and failed to appeal the order over the telephone. The corporation’s lawyers are now working on legal arguments for a second potential appeal, which may be lodged tomorrow.

The programme, part of a two-part series, features actors who play anonymous rioters speaking about their experiences of the riots last August. The BBC said in a statement on Monday: “A court order has been made that has prevented the BBC from broadcasting the programme The Riots: In their own Words tonight. We will put it out at a later date.”

The script from the programme, written by the award-winning playwright Alecky Blythe, was produced from verbatim transcripts of interviews conducted as part of the Reading the Riots study, which conducted confidential interviews with 270 rioters.

The ban on the film has created a major headache for BBC executives, who are being forced to reorganise a packed schedule, which includes Olympic coverage and journalism based around next month’s anniversary of the riots.

The BBC did not give details about the nature or contents of the court order. However a copy seen by the Guardian states: “It is ordered that the BBC programme ‘The Riots: In their Own Words’ due for broadcast on BBC 2 tonight is not broadcast by any media by any means until further order.” Another part of the ruling states: “Further the clip currently available for viewing on the BBC website be removed forthwith.”

The clip referred to by the judge appeared on a blog posted last Friday, in which a BBC producer on the project said that using the “important and illuminating” interviews in the drama would provide insight into “why and how the riots had happened”. The clip, a short preview of the actors playing rioters speaking about their experiences, has now been removed from the site – although the blog remains.

Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “This is a disturbing move. The Reading the Riots project gives a valuable insight into the events of last summer in England. As we approach the anniversary of the riots, it is important that broadcasts and discussion about the events are allowed to take place. Censoring television programmes is not in any way helpful to our understanding of the important issues and factors underlying the disturbances.”

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Why I joined the Labour Party

Two days ago I joined the Labour Party. This was not a straightforward decision for me.  I had grown up in Durham in the North East of England, witnessing the effects that years of conservative government had had on the region.  To begin with, it was simply obvious to me that I would, as an adult, take an active involvement in the Labour Party.  The founding principles of the party were essential to an area where the traditional industries had been so badly hammered with no alternative investment, where social housing was so seriously needed, where the public sector formed a huge proportion of the local employment opportunities and where the divisions between the privileged and the under-privileged were stark.  It was evident that Labour was what we needed.  I talk of region not just because of the economic factors that I have outlined here, but also because of the ways that these factors are involved in the traditions of the area.  The heritage of trade unionism and the labour movement is extremely strong, evidenced by things like the annual ‘Big Meeting’, the Durham Miners’ Gala that happens to be taking place today.  This is bound up in the broader culture of the region – you can see evidence of it in music, poetry, art, craft and stand-up comedy. There are certain notions of what it is to be a worker, and to be a member of society, which run through many strands of regional identity. Maybe one of these days I will write a post that elaborates on that, but it will be one for another day.

I do not want to big up my involvement in these things, because that is an extremely complex subject. I am a child of relative privilege, the kid of two Oxford graduates who occupied relatively secure, relatively high earning public sector jobs.  My engagement with this culture was always a choice, which in a sense meant that it could not be a wholesale engagement.  I simply could not demand a claim in the elements of the narrative that appealed to disenfranchisement and disempowerment.  This reinforced for me the necessity of tearing down fences.  On completing my A-levels, I went to the University of St Andrews, the university with the highest proportion of public school students in the UK, to study for a degree in philosophy. That was exciting, and it also sort of stung.

By this time, Labour had already been in power for three years.  Can you remember how exciting the Labour landslide was in 1997?  Like many others, I was thrilled, despite a definite uncertainty about Blair.  Had I been old enough at the time, it would have been utterly obvious that I would have voted Labour back then.  My grandfather, who had been a Labour councillor in Bristol alongside Tony Benn, and very much part of the same political mould, lived to hear the results of the election, and died just a few hours afterwards.

Where did the disillusionment set in? It would be easy, as I have done many times before, to say things about Iraq, and that was certainly part of it.  The people’s flag should not be used as a shroud to cover the dead of its own unnecessary brutality.  But that is only one part of the picture – Labour abandoned everything that had once spoken meaningfully to me.  In his public lecture at UEA last term, Jon Cruddas said that:

‘By 2001, New Labour’s policies were essentially based on a mythical ‘Middle England’, drawn up by the pollsters and located somewhere in the South East, built around continuous growth and affluence and where politics always had to be individualised … a sour, illiberal politics about consuming more, rather than deeper ideas- of fraternity, of collective experience, and what it is we aspire to be as a nation.’

The party lost its connections to traditions, to collectivity, and opted to bribe people with ‘aspirational’ lifestyles, rather than to connect with the genuine fabric of people’s lives and the historical, material, social and cultural environments that we did, do and can inhabit.  New Labour became a party based on a politic that was, as Cruddas put it, ‘transactional, allocative, rational’.  What is worse is that this is a conception of the rational that subverts rationality.  Reason is divorced from passion such that one is being ‘irrational’ if one is adhering to almost any political principle that is not founded on an economic one.  Politics becomes the servant of economics, and the economy is valued for its own sake, not for the sake of people.

Cruddas’ lecture seriously hit home for me because it summed up eloquently why I had become so jaded with the Labour Party, and how the party where I felt I belonged had been whisked away from under my nose just as I was becoming old enough to get involved in it.  Labour had become obsessed with the coldly rationalistic individualist agent associated with Thatcherite economic models.  But now influential people in the Labour Party were saying so.  Cruddas’ lecture gave me real hope that there were conversations of real substance going on within the party, and I started to feel that I wanted to be involved with those conversations.  Labour is not (yet) the party that I would like it to be, but recent noises have shown it to be a party that is alive with discussion that opens the window for real substantive, deep and ideological change.  Labour is not pissing about with pasties, it is concerned with what it stands for, and what we as a nation should be aiming for.  Many voices within the labour party are calling for a political vision that is engaged with people’s lives.

Ed Miliband was accused (by Baroness Warsi, unsurprisingly) of left-wing trade union cronyish militancy when he appeared at the Miners’ Gala today.  What Warsi misses is that the Gala is a community event, absolutely linked in with the heritage, economic traditions and culture of the region.  Far from being a militant imposition, this is the real big society in action.  As Miliband put it ‘When you see people marching past as I did from the balcony of that hotel, a march people have been doing for 140 years, I think that it is not just about politics, it is about the strengths of these communities… The idea that the people here are a bunch of militants, as some of my opponents say, is nonsense.’

As is already evident, the current Labour interest in talking about the big ideas of tradition, identity and class are one of the reasons why I have finally felt able to join.  However, these very discussions also have a tendency to make me somewhat uneasy.  It is not news to anyone that the Labour Party is an extremely broad church, with different interest groups within it.  Instinctively, my natural allegiance would be with the party’s Socialist Campaign Group, founded in the year of my birth by the likes of Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn and Michael Meacher.  However, over the past year or so, much of the interesting discussion that suggests ways in which Labour can reconnect with communities and regain its ideological ‘soul’ has emanated from figures like Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glassman: politicians associated with the term ‘Blue Labour’, ‘the attempt to combine left-wing economics with social conservatism’ (Neil O’ Brien, New Statesman, 9th July 2012).

This is hardly surprising given the emphasis on tradition and on national identity that I have just discussed.  But what irks me here (OK, it makes my blood boil) is the conception of tradition that is used when linking this element of left-wing thought to anything ‘blue’ or ‘conservative’.  The concepts of tradition, and of history, are bound up with challenges against the very Thatcherite conception of the person that the left have to combat.  Maurice Glasman, and certainly to some extent Jon Cruddas, are virtue theorists, deeply concerned with the Aristotelian idea of man as a ‘political animal’, whose character and destiny are bound up with those of the communities in which he participates.  Glasman is very familiar, although not always in agreement, with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a contemporary virtue ethicist, who writes that:

‘The story of my life is always embedded in the stories of those communities from which I derive my identity.  I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualistic mode, is to deform my present relationships.  The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.’

So far, so good (at least in my book) and Glasman and co. agree with that.  The emphasis on tradition is a much needed salve to the ideologically empty economism that has dominated Labour’s discourse.  There is a similar tension on the right: Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a cover for the deep splits in his party between Thatcherism and One Nation Conservatism.  The cold individualism of neoliberal homo economicus has been on the rise in both parties over the past thirty years or more, and I could say a load of stuff about Karl Marx and Adam Smith here, but I think that is for another day.  Cameron saw the rift and came up with a handy bit of rhetoric to plaster over it, one which has now pretty much eroded.  Labour is thinking seriously about the philosophy.  MacIntyre continues:

 Notice that rebellion against my identity is always one possible mode of expressing it. (After Virtue, p. 221)

The Blue Labour line needs to pay close attention to this.  What is tradition? We might attempt to sum it up in terms of a set of propositions agreed to by a certain group, or a set of institutions or activities that they all participate in, or a grand common narrative that they share.  However, this is potentially very dangerous.  Take, for example, David Cameron’s off-the-shelf prêt-à-porter vision of Englishness, which is about as English as my pretentious urge to use the term ‘prêt-à-porter’ even though I had already said ‘off-the-shelf’.  To begin with, like Blair’s middle England, this vision does not really connect with the lives of more than a vanishingly small proportion of England (let alone the large non-English parts of our country, but hey, they never vote tory anyway).  But what is more to the point is that in order to be a responsible ‘English’ citizen, one must buy into the model wholesale, with all the allegiances that are bolted on to it. We must be committed to family values, to monarchism, militarism and church, to Union Jack cushions, street parties, bunting, cream cakes, flags and some notion of the ‘Olympic Spirit’ that is terribly terribly English but also seems to be what the rest of the world should aspire to…

Not only does this commit the terrible sin of putting me off my cream cakes, it is also an account of Englishness that is rigid, dogmatic, top-down, inflexible and, well, conservative.  This is a danger that Blue Labour should be acutely aware of.  One reason that attentiveness to tradition is so significant in politics is that traditions can be harmful and insidious.  They can warp the ways that we think so as to reinforce division and inequality.

Political theory is almost invariably bound up with traditional patterns of thought of one kind or another.  We are all standing somewhere (not just in a nation, but also in a local community, a class, a point in history and as animals of a particular kind on a particular kind of planet) and to claim that we are uninfluenced by our history and culture is either delusional or disingenuous.  That is one of the problems with neoliberalism and many versions of liberalism.  But the problem with Cameron’s line is that the role of tradition is openly acknowledged, and then a certain view of tradition is embraced uncritically, and in a way that makes criticism impossible.  If you do not ascribe to it, you are not properly ‘English’, you are not even a part of English traditions.

A useful analogy is the distinction between the artifacts of culture which are preserved in museums and stately homes, or protected by strict copyright, and those that operate in the oral traditions of storytelling and folk music.  Let’s be clear: I am not making value judgments about these different art forms.  The former is not subject to change.  The painting, the words on the page, and the music on the computer hard drive will be the same any time they are viewed or heard, for an indefinite amount of time.  By contrast, a folk song or story is public – both in that it is not owned by anyone, but also in that it can be modified and transformed into many different forms by anyone.  It is of the people, and as such, there will be ‘families’ of songs and tales, with wider and narrower diversions.  The stories will interweave, split, and combine in a vast array of ways.  Once someone owns the story, tells everyone how it should go, forbids its variation and shames those who attempt to do it, it is no longer a folk story.

Tradition is not a single story, or set of beliefs or activities that persists in the same way for hundreds of years.  That is not tradition, it is relic.  A reliance on tradition, understood as a complex set of interweaving narratives, is necessary for us to know where we are going.  Tradition must be discursive, public and open to transformation and radical reform.  That is not blue, and it is most definitely not conservative.  I dislike the term ‘Blue Labour’ for this reason, and the movement, which has a great deal to admire about it, should be deeply concerned about the notion of tradition that they adopt.  Both Cruddas and Glasman are (I think to different extents) aware of these dangers, but should never forget the insidious classism of the One Nation Tory who looms over their shoulders.

‘Traditions’ can silence and isolate people as well as unite them.  The embracing of romantic visions, of fraternity, of all the language that has been lost on the left is a valuable thing.  For a tradition to be a genuine tradition of the people, the people must be enabled to participate in it.  This requires a flexible understanding of the nature of tradition itself, together with policies that create the material and social conditions that are necessary for participation.

I am not sure whether Labour will ultimately go in the right direction.  I feel conflicted about joining a party with so much blood on its hands.  I am worried about the ‘return of Blair’, and countless other issues.  But I have come in because Labour have opened the door.  For now, there is a genuine discussion, and a chance for the people to have a voice in a way that is impossible in the other mainstream parties.  It is not long in the grand scheme of things before the next general election.  We need to work hard, as members of political parties, communities and society at large, to ensure that voice can continue to be heard.