Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ezra’

How to be an amateur art critic

In Art on August 27, 2014 at 9:06 AM

1. Go to the Tate Modern.
2. Pay £14.50 (without donation £13.10) entrance fee for Malevich exhibition.
3. Enter Malevich Exhibition
4. Look for the painting called “Black Square.” It should be easy to find. It is black and it is a square.
5. Spend five minutes looking at said painting.
6. While looking at said painting use words and phrases and say things such as: “powerful”, “uncompromising”, “iconic”, “stark message”, “a religious experience”, “life affirming”, “dominating,” “suprematism”, “magical” and “bold.”

Et voilà! You are now an amateur art critic!

How to be a professional art critic.

Steps 1,3,4,5,6 are the same as above. Step 2 is unnecessary as you will get a press pass.

Add step 7. This is more advanced. It helps if you can cite Kant and say something such as the following when looking at the painting:

The experience of viewing the painting…involves a feeling of pain brought about by the breakdown of representation followed by a powerful sense of relief, even elation, at the thought that the formless or massive can nevertheless be grasped as a mode of reason. In other words, the failure of the black square to represent this transcendent realm serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature.

19th Century Marxist Mantra in 21st Century Feminist Garb

In Book Review, Feminism, Marxism on August 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Book Review

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.

Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and  enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published.  She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and  to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.

Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist.  She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”

The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.

And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.”  Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.

After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.

According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.

On Slave Reparations – A Response to Boonin 3 – The Individual Rights Based Objection.

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 3:57 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on  July 31st 2014, 6:58 pm

This is the third and final post in a series of posts responding to the arguments made in favour of slave reparations by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions.  The first post can be seen here and the second here.

A key reason why I think Boonin’s argument should be rejected is that he fails to treat people as individuals. He treats people as a part of a collective. And that collective is identified purely by the colour of someone’s skin.  If we accept the premise that coerced slavery was wrong, it follows that those coerced into slavery or the direct descendants of those slaves are entitled to compensation. This would be in line with Robert Nozick’s theory of entitlement that he outlined in the second section of his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Boonin specifically rejects the idea that the compensation should be to descendants of slaves. For as he states:

[T]he compensation argument, it’s important to emphasize doesn’t operate according to bloodlines. It claims that currently living black Americans are owed reparations not because they’re biologically descended from the victims of slavery and its aftermath, but because they continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery and its aftermath.

This means that Boonin is not looking at a particular black American as an individual citizen but as a black citizen. He is lumping all black Americans together. He is suggesting African Americans from the homeless guy in Detroit through to Tiger Woods and Barack Obama continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery. Boonin has not explained exactly in what way Oprah Winfrey is suffering. The reason he has not done so is that he could not care less about Oprah Winfrey as a person in her own right. All he cares about, in relation to his reparations argument, is the colour of her skin. He classifies people by skin colour and judges them by skin colour when it comes to entitlement to reparations. He sees black Americans “on the whole” and not as individuals in their own right.

Elsewhere, Boonin argues that he defends his claim on reparations “without appealing to any kind of objectionable racial collectivism.”  This statement is patently false. He repeats in his book that he views black Americans as “a whole.” It is therefore, whether he likes it or not, as David Horowitz suggested, a racist argument and should be rejected.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 2. Recipients and beneficiaries

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:51 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place July 30th 2014, 11:55 am

This is the second post in a series of three responding to the arguments made in favour of reparations for slavery by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. The first post can be seen here.

As I commented in my last post, Boonin argues that “the U.S government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.” One of David Horowitz’s objections to slave reparations is that “Most Living Americans Have No Connection (Direct or Indirect) to Slavery.” He explains “The two great waves of American Immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What logic would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans[,] Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims to Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?”  Boonin answers this question with a valid point:

When you freely choose to become a citizen of a country, that is, you incur a duty to help your country fulfil all of its obligations, including those obligations that it occurred before you arrived. This includes having some of your tax money go to paying off a national debt that you had nothing to do with generating, paying to fund programmes that were adopted before you were born, and so on.

One could compare the idea of immigrating to a country to that of becoming a new shareholder of a corporation. When someone buys shares in a company he takes on, in his stake, his share of the liabilities of the company. If the company borrowed money for thirty years by issuing a bond five years earlier, the new shareholder cannot simply write off that debt: he takes on the obligation. This is a reasonable argument. If the US government does owe a debt to its black population then Boonin’s response to Horowitz’s objection as it stands seems valid. But Boonin creates a new problem for his argument.

I will assume that some immigrants into the United States since the end of slavery have not simply been the groups that Horowitz mentioned, but has also included, either in or out of those groups, some black people. By Boonin’s argument these new black immigrants should also pay their share of “the national debt.”  This is not a problem. What is the problem is that Boonin argues that “compensation is owed not to the biological offspring of particular victims of previous injustices, but rather to black Americans who continue to suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.” Because Boonin argues this, he would have it that, as an example, a new black immigrant to America whose family had lived, as an example, in the United Kingdom for generations is due compensation. But this is a nonsense: not only is this black immigrant not descended from American slaves, neither he nor his family have suffered the effects of American slavery or racial separation – for the simple reason that they never lived in America.  In order for Boonin’s argument to hold water, he must explain why such an immigrant is entitled to reparations. He has not done so.

In my final post on this matter I shall discuss what I will call the individual rights based objection – the idea that an African American should not be treated as part of a collective of African Americans but as an individual.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 1. Causation

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:40 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 29th 2014, 1:48 pm

In 2011 Cambridge University Press published philosopher David Boonin’s book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. Chapters 2 and 3 of the book deal with the idea that America owes slave reparations to its black population. In 2001 the conservative commentator David Horowitz wrote Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too. Horowitz’s points were published as a one page advertisement. In chapter 2 of his book, extending over some 53 pages, Boonin responds to Horowitz critically arguing against each of them.  In chapter 3, at 58 pages in length, Boonin extends Horowitz’s points and comes up with further arguments in favour reparations only to knock them down, too.  His position is that “the U.S. government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.”

Boonin believes his argument is both “coherent and defensible.” This is the first of a series of three blog posts to attack points of Boonin’s arguments. In this post I deal with the causal claim. In the next post I deal with the payments and beneficiary issue. And in my final post I shall deal with what I will call the individual rights argument, against Boonin’s collectivization of the black population. It is in these three posts that I hope to demonstrate that Boonin’s arguments are unsound.

The Causal Claim

Boonin defines the causal claim as “the acts by which previous generations of American citizens wrongfully harmed previous generations of Africans and African Americans continue to cause harmful consequences for black Americans today.” He admits that this claim is “absolutely essential” to his argument: “if the past wrongful acts involving slavery and its aftermath are not currently exerting any harmful influence on the present generation of black Americans, after all, then the compensation principle won’t entitle the present generation of black Americans to any compensation because there won’t be any damages to compensate them for.”

He believes that “black people in the United States today, on the whole, are disadvantaged relative to white people” and he has tried to seek an explanation. He rules out genetic differences as “thoroughly discredited within the relevant scientific communities” and concludes that it therefore must be differences in the social environment “that makes it more difficult, on average, for black Americans to flourish.” With no evidence whatsoever, Boonin makes a leap: “The most obvious candidate for such a difference by far is the existence of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. And so the most reasonable conclusion to draw, on this account is that slavery and its aftermath do, in fact, continue to exert a negative influence on the life of Black Americans.”

David Horowitz argued that the economic adversity suffered by many black Americans does not arise from the lingering effects of the slave trade but from “failures of individual character.”   Boonin responds, again with no evidence, but just because he cannot think of any other explanation: “if black Americans really are more likely to suffer from failures of individual character than are white Americans, this discrepancy must be due to the lingering and discouraging consequences of slavery and its aftermath.” Boonin cites John McWhorter, who argued that the reason why black students did not try as hard as white students is that they “belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain” and “defeatist thought patters.” Shelby Steele is also cited for the claim that the reason for the respects in which black Americans on average lag behind white Americans is that they “internalize a message of inferiority.” Finally Dinesh D’Souza is cited for the claim that black Americans have “destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behaviour.” For exactly the same reason, i.e., he cannot think of anything better, Boonin attributes the reasons for any cultural factors leading to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans to the legacy of slavery and its aftermath.

It is fair to comment that Boonin does make an appeal to authority. He states that McWhorter, Steele, and D’Souza all “endorse the claim that the American legacy of slavery and its aftermath is at least in part to blame for the rise of a dysfunctional black American culture.”  Such an appeal to authority does not seem impressive. One could presumably just cite other writers such as Horowitz who would dismiss such a claim.

In 1865, with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery officially ended in the United States. It had been made illegal much earlier on in many states. Boonin argues that if there are any cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans that lead to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans today, these can be traced back to the way different black people were treated in America up 150 years ago and perhaps even further.

My argument against Boonin is this. If he is right that a black person today can be culturally affected by the harmful treatment of a different black person say 200 years ago, then why stop there? Why not go back to a period before slavery? Boonin has simply not considered that cultural behaviour might have much longer roots and date back from a period of time before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. I am not saying that this is a reason for black Americans not doing as well as white Americans. What I am arguing is that Boonin’s argument has failed. His reason for blaming the academic and financial underperformance of black Americans on slavery and its aftermath is not that he has evidence that this is so, but that he has ruled out other factors such as genetics. The world did not begin with the discovery of America. Boonin seems not to have even considered this fact.

In my next post I shall deal with the payments and beneficiary problem.

Jonathan Freedland’s Utilitarian Problem

In Israel, Just War, Utilitarianism on August 15, 2014 at 3:32 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 28th 2014, 2:56 pm.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland has argued that not only is the Israeli government’s action in Gaza wrong, it is “utterly self-defeating”:

More Israelis have died in the operation to tackle the Hamas threat than have died from the Hamas threat, at least over the past five years. Put another way, to address the risk that hypothetical Israeli soldiers might be kidnapped, 33 actual Israeli soldiers have died.

I first should point out an inconsistency in his article. Freedland earlier states that the Israeli concern is not that specifically soldiers will be kidnapped but that civilians might be. The tunnels are “designed to allow Hamas militants to emerge above ground and mount raids on Israeli border villages and kibbutzim, killing or snatching as many civilians as they can.”  He even seems to accept that the tunnels are intended for kidnapping purposes by noting that “tranquillisers and handcuffs were reportedly found in those tunnels.”

His implication is clear: perhaps the odd person might get kidnapped, but better that than 33 soldiers lose their lives trying to prevent such an action.

I disagree with Freedland and I will do so initially by highlighting an analogy which in itself fails on certain levels to be a good analogy, but on another level it is an ideal analogy. The analogy is one discussed by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his popular book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Penguin, 2010). It is a true story and dates back to the 1970s.

In summary, Ford had a car, the Pinto, where it knew the fuel tank was prone to explode in the event of a collision. For a small cost per car it could fix the problem. But Ford chose not to do so for a utilitarian reason. Ford estimated that the cost in compensating those that died through exploding tanks would be less than the costs of installing a safety device in all the cars. This was the approach taken. Ultimately the decision process reached the court and the jury was outraged. Ford were fined punitive damages for such behaviour.

The flaws with this analogy are obvious: comparing finances with lives lost. However, the principle is valid: the right thing to do is not necessarily the thing that costs the least. And it does not matter if that is in lives or in money. The simple utilitarian approach is not satisfactory. It ignores duty. In the case of Ford its duty was to install the safety device and, in the case of Israel, very high on the list, is the duty to protect its population from a hostile attack.

While Freedland’s negotiated solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians might be ideal, this takes time (and has not proved successful for decades) and the Israeli government’s knowledge about the tunnels might not allow so much time. Something had to be done. It is unthinkable that a government, any government, should acceptably say to its population: “Some of you might get kidnapped. We are sorry about that, but we are not willing to risk our soldiers’ lives to protect you from kidnap.”

The Israeli government could not know in advance how many, if any, soldiers’ lives would be lost following the Gaza ground invasion decision. According to the Jerusalem Post, the toll by yesterday stood at 43. Unfortunately, in war, soldiers do die. But it is understood that this is a risk soldiers (even conscription soldiers) take. Civilians also die in war, but they should not be deliberately targeted and they should be protected. Hamas fail on their side of the equation. They deliberately target civilians and hence commit war crimes. On its side of the equation Israel should not also fail. It should protect its population.

A following point is also relevant. For Freedland’s utilitarian calculation the input data should also be accurate. He seems to assume that the number of soldiers or civilians killed or kidnapped via the use of Hamas’s network of tunnels will be miniscule. The Gatestone institute report of a plot planned for the Jewish New Year, September 24:

The Hamas plan consisted of what was to be a surprise attack in which 200 fighters would be dispatched through each of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel, and seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.

We are dealing here in counterfactuals but if this alleged plot was allowed to proceed, the amount of Israeli citizens killed or kidnapped might be far greater than the amount of soldiers that lose their lives in the actual Gaza offensive. If so, under its own fundamental principle, Jonathan’s Freedland utilitarian argument would be completely shattered.

Combatants and human shields: some inchoate thoughts on the ethics of war

In Just War, Philosophy on July 14, 2014 at 5:17 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s  Place on July 10th 2014, 2:25 pm

The ethics of war, as we tend to understand it in the West, is handed down to us through the Catholic tradition. Just War Theory is broken down into two important areas (using pretentious Latin names) – jus ad bellum(legitimate reasons to go to war) and jus in bello (legitimate actions in war). For this post I am considering the actions in war: jus in bello.

There is a rule that is widely accepted and built into the Geneva Convention: non-combatants have immunity from attack. The term “non-combatants” tends to be used as opposed to “civilians” as it encompasses, as examples away from civilians, prisoners of war, army chaplains and army doctors who also cannot be deliberately targeted.

The Catholic tradition has built into it something known as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). This doctrine differentiates between what is intended and what is foreseen but unintended. Consider the following: a combatant from Ruritania fires a missile into a city of Boldavia with the deliberate intent of killing Boldavian non-combatants (civilians). This is clearly prohibited by the Just War Doctrine. It breaches the idea that non-combatants are not to be deliberately targeted. Now consider the Boldavians. Fed up with missiles being fired into their cities targeting civilians they fire a bigger missile back specifically at the Ruritanians’ missile factory. When doing so the Boldavians foresee that not only will they destroy the missile factory as intended, but they will also realistically kill some civilians who happen to be in the area. These civilian deaths are foreseen but unintended. Using a standard military euphemism, they are “collateral damage.”

A way to think of the differences between the two cases is that the Ruritanians will feel they have wasted a missile if they have not killed Boldavian civilians whereas the Boldavians would be delighted if there were no civilians killed when they destroyed the Ruritanians missile factory. The deaths of the civilians is a bad consequence of the Boldavian action not an intended one. The Doctrine of Double Effect sets out the conditions that allow these foreseen but unintended bad consequences. The key points being that the bad effects are not intended, the act itself was a good one (eg destroying the missile factory) and that the foreseen bad effect is proportional. What is and what is not proportional can be in practice a hotly disputed matter.

Now consider human shields. I will break them down into two types: non-voluntary human shields and voluntary human shields. A non-voluntary human shield is simple to comprehend. It could be, for example, a child who is kidnapped and tied to the front of a tank, or patients in a hospital from which missiles are being fired. It is in breach of the ethics of war to use such human shields. Doing so should be seen as a war crime. But does this mean that the use of such human shields prohibits the targeting of a building used in such a way? The answer, in standard war ethics, can be found by applying the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Imagine the Ruritanians are firing not very accurate or powerful missiles into Boldavia from the roof of a hospital that contains one hundred patients. The Boldavians could destroy that missile capability but to do so they would also destroy the hospital foreseeing the deaths of the patients. If, as said, the Ruritanians’ missiles are not very accurate or powerful and, in practice, strike terror into Boldavians as opposed to killing them, it seems disproportionate for the Boldavians to target the Ruritanians’ hospital missile base. However, if the Ruritanians’ missiles get more and more powerful and more and more accurate, then targeting the hospital missile base might well be justified as it could be proportional. Consider, in the extreme, that the hospital missile base contained a nuclear missile that could wipe out a city of millions. The hospital patients’ immunity from being killed by a legitimate military action by the Boldavians is greater the more ineffective the Ruritanians’ missiles are.

Voluntary human shields are a different case entirely. Imagine Ruritanian civilians who answer a plea from a Ruritanian military general to sit on the roof of a building that contains military weapons. The purpose of them sitting on the roof – they understand. They are to be human shields whose mere presence is to deter the Boldavians destroying the building. I wish to argue that because they voluntarily respond to a military call they cease being non-combatants and become combatants. To explain further. Imagine Ruritania has a population of one million with 50,000 combatant members of its army. They have 1,000 missile bases. In advance of any military actions the head of the army puts out a call and asks for volunteers to sit in or near these military installations. Imagine 20,000 volunteer to do so. These 20,000 people, I would argue, become crucial to the military strategy of the Ruritanians. Because of the nature of their role I take the view that it should ethically fail: the human shields become combatants and not non-combatants and are thus they lose their immunity from attack. The proportionality requirement is relaxed. Boldavians do not need to be as concerned if voluntary human shields seated on the roof of the missile store lose their lives in an attack on the missile store if the missile store is a legitimate target.

UPDATE

It has been brought to my attention on Twitter by Mugwump that my views on the differing treatment of voluntary versus non voluntary human shields are not original. They are in line with Yoram Dinstein’s interpretation of international law. These views were published in his book, The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict, (Cambridge University Press, 2004) pp.130-131. The relevant pages can be accessed freely via Google Books, here.

The Socialist Idea Refuted

In Libertarianism, Marxism, Nozick, Philosophy on June 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Book Review

Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.

In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.

While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.

A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses.  Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”

In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant.  The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.

Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”

Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.

Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.

UCL Student Union ban Nietzsche Club

In Freedom of Expression, Libertarianism, Marxism on June 9, 2014 at 12:15 PM

This is  cross-post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on June 6th 2014, 5:40 pm.

The policy of “No Platform for Racists and Fascists,” historically adopted by many student unions, is ideologically appalling. Not only is it an affront to the doctrine of free speech, it has been thoroughly abused by its supporters. Anybody that they do not like can be targeted for banning. The latest successful attack is on the Nietzsche Club at University College London.

UCL Student Union have passed a policy to “ban and otherwise prevent the installation of any further publicity of [the Nietzsche Club] around UCLU buildings, and to urge UCL to adopt the same policy in the university buildings.” They have also resolved to “reject any attempts by this group to seek affiliation and official recognition from UCLU as an official club or society.” A further resolution passed is to “prevent any attempts by this group to hold meetings and organise events on campus.” However, this latter resolution is pending implementation subject to a professional opinion on its legality. Irrespective of the legal opinion, following the other resolutions passed, the Nietzsche Club will not be able to advertise their meetings in the Student Union or book a room to hold a meeting in the Student Union. In the language of student union politics, this is an effective ban.

The Student Union believe that “this group is aimed at promoting a far-right, fascist ideology at UCL” and that “there is no meaningful distinction to be made between a far-right and a fascist ideology.” There is no question that it is Marxist inspired political views behind this policy. The motion tells us that “the root cause of fascism [is] capitalism” and hence the fight against fascism is really one for a “socialist transformation of society.”  Moreover, among the crimes, according to UCLU, of Nietzsche, Heidegger and other philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read, are that they are “anti-Marxist [and] anti-worker.”

There is no need to comment on the political views of the philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read. Even if they are fascistic, that is no reason to ban groups who wish to read their works. It seems to me a small political step from UCLU wishing to ban the Nietzsche Club to wishing to march into UCL’s libraries, pulling books written by Nietzsche from the shelves, and burning them. At any rate, one wonders what UCLU wish to do with UCL’s own academic departments that teach Nietzsche on accredited courses for students. Does the Student Union wish to close down the courses and hound the lecturers from the College?

Nobody should be the slightest bit surprised that Marxists are behind the  hideous motion. Sam Bayliss, who proposed the motion, is a self-declared active member of UCLU Marxist Society and Timur Dautov, who seconded the motion, is the president of the very same Marxist Society. In hisTwitter biography Dautov admits to being a supporter of Socialist Appeal UK and the International Marxist Tendency, follow on organisations from the Militant Tendency, the Marxist organisation that caused mayhem in the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Marxist organisations are notorious for using and abusing the “No Platform” policy. In the past, the Socialist Workers Party used such a policy to ban Jewish Societies on the grounds that they were Zionist and hence racist.

The irony is that if any societies should be banned for promoting dangerous ideologies, after genocides in Communist countries in the twentieth century causing tens of millions of deaths, those that champion the ideology of Marx and Lenin should be high on the list. But surely, rather than banning either the Nietzsche Club or the Marxist Society, it is far better to champion free thought and free speech in our academic institutions.

Publish the Blair/Bush Letters

In Iraq, Just War on June 5, 2014 at 11:06 AM

This is a cross-post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place, June 5th 2014, 10:22 am

It appears the Cabinet Office has blocked publication of the George Bush/Tony Blair  correspondence that was written in the run up to the Iraq War.  All that can be published is the “gist” of what Blair said and nothing to indicate Bush’s views. The reason for blocking the publication is either for the Cabinet Office’s independent reasons or because they do not wish to antagonise the Americans.

Writing in The Times (subscription required), Melanie Phillips has said:

Publishing this correspondence would breach the understanding that dialogue between world leaders is necessarily private. It would undermine trust that any such future conversations would remain undisclosed, causing lasting damage to Britain’s relations with the US and thus to British interests.

I wish to dispute this premise. The world leaders in question are the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the then President of the United States of America. Both were elected as leaders in democracies. As such they serve the population that they represent. They made decisions that ultimately led to British and American citizens, who had signed up to the army in their respective countries, going to war and risking their lives. Some died.

Any correspondence between Bush and Blair surrounding a decision to go to war should not remain private for ever. Such conversations are not like those asking each other what they had for breakfast. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the British and American populations that such conversations remain private. They should be official public records. In recent memory we have had a “thirty year rule” before public records come into the public domain. This is gradually being reduced to twenty years. There was a considered proposal to reduce it to fifteen years. In my personal opinion, for a lot of material, I do not see why it cannot be released within ten years or even earlier. It has been over eleven years since the commencement of the Iraq War and I can see no reason why it should be necessary to keep such correspondence away from the eyes of the public.

Melanie Phillips’ concern that publication of the correspondence “would undermine trust that any such future conversations would remain undisclosed,” is misplaced. We should not want our leaders to be able to act with impunity. It would be damaging to a liberal democracy if it were so.  Leaders should be held responsible and accountable for their actions. That would not be possible if those actions were kept secret. It is true that it would be bad mannered for the British government to publish private correspondence from an American President without permission if that correspondence has not yet been made public in America, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that if the British and American governments can cooperate on going to war, they should be able to cooperate on publishing correspondence about that decision.

Hat Tip: The Steeple Times.

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