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By TheophileEscargot (Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 04:00:23 AM EST) Reading, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "Embroideries", "Red Tory". Greece. Links.

What I'm reading
Embroideries is a comic by by Marjane Satrapi, best known for "Persepolis".

A collection of Iranian women tell each other gossipy stories.

Pretty good, the artwork looks deceptively crude but is good with character, and some of the stories are fun.

What I'm Reading 2
Red Tory by Phillip Blond.

Pretty awful but apparently important book, since Phillip Blond is usually described as "David Cameron's guru", and has an apparent influence on the party leaders.

The book basically falls into three parts. The first part describes the alleged breakdown of British society in apocalyptic, tabloid-columnist terms. The second part describes how this breakdown apparently happened. The third part proposes some solutions.

I found the first two-thirds book quite heart-sinking to read. One problem is that he likes to casually introduce a vast range of different ideas from different fields, which he tries to stitch together into a overarching grand theory; but he doesn't seem to understand them very well. Almost every idea seems to be misunderstood or misrepresented in some way. Because they're quite subtle, it would take a volume about four times the length of the actual book to comprehensively debunk everything.

For example, here's what he says about the philosopher John Rawls.

Individuality cuts away from human relationships and inherited traditions demand that, in order to preserve this extreme sense of identity, all individuals must be exactly like each other: this is exactly why John Rawls imagined that one could only construct a model for a liberal society by imagining a "veil of ignorance" in which no one knows what identity or social role they would occupy in any actual social arrangement.
This isn't really what Rawls actually thought. Rawls thought that total equality was unworkable: we need some degree of inequality. The idea of the veil of ignorance was to help us work out the best level of inequality. We should imagine that before we're born, we don't know what life we're going to lead: maybe a supermarket shelf-stacker, maybe a neurosurgeon or rock star. From behind that veil of ignorance we would probably want to aim for a society that rewards us if we're lucky, but still gives us some security if we're unlucky.

If that was a one-off , it wouldn't be a problem, but Blond persistently misunderstands other things in ways that are time-consuming to explain.

So, people who aren't familiar with his wide range of references seem to be coming away from this book with the impression that it's a vast work of synthetic genius, combining many fields of politics, sociology, culture, philosophy and economics into a grand theory of society. In fact it's a confused farrago of semi-understood bullshit. It's quite disturbing that David Cameron and others in power seem to have taken the first view.

The first part of the book describes a broken Britain of alcoholism, an out-of-control underclass, broken homes, rampaging crime, economic weakness and oppressive government surveillance. Some of the problems Blond describes are actually real: in particular the assault on civil liberties. Some are exaggerated.

The second part looks for the causes of this in a "nihilistic liberalism", a mysterious, powerful, evil force that has been systematically ruining everything from the Eighteenth Century onwards. Blond shares G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc's romanticized vision of the middle ages as a Utopian society of stout village yeoman. It was the enlightenment that started turning all this sour, but things got steadily worse. Marx, Kant and Thatcher are all equally representative of this Nihilistic Liberalism.

Blond is also very fond of Chesterton's heavy use of paradoxes, and constantly introduces "paradoxes" of his own. These are generally used to combine things are are apparently opposites or strongly opposed into the malevolent straw man of "nihilistic liberalism".

So, you might think it's a bit odd that both Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher actually represent the exact same thing: "nihilistic liberalism", and naively think that any damage they did came from very different ideologies. Blond's trick, borrowed from Chesterton, is to smugly declare that this is a paradox, silly, and of course they're the same. "Paradox" is used as a magic word to excuse incoherent arguments.

It's not really a paradox to say Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher are same: it's just wrong. But Blond constantly uses the word "paradox" to try to give the impression that complete incoherence is actually a grand and subtle universal theory.

The main theme of the book is that as Jonathan Raban's review puts it "the liberal state is destined to become a tyranny precisely because it values individual rights too highly. " Therefore, to get more true liberty, we need less liberty. This, in Blond's eyes, is a paradox. But I think it's not a paradox, it's just wrong. Our problems have complex causes, not just "nihilistic liberalism" and require complex solutions

Bizarrely, he attributes changes in British society after the first world war not to the vast loss of life, the economic impact of the huge cost of the war, the social changes as women were assigned into the factories and then expelled back to the home; but to the Bloomsbury Group and "disillusioned members of the elite".

The last third of the book, where Blond proposes solutions, is fortunately much less irritating to read. Blond borrows Robert Putnam's thesis from "Bowling Alone" that modern society suffers from the lack of intermediate "social organizations" (clubs, churches, local political parties, community groups) and wants to strengthen them.

He's generally fairly vague about how this can be done, but does offer a few specific suggestions: mutualizing the post office, somehow "encouraging" more co-ops.

One problem with this is that since Blond's vision of how the decline of social organizations has happened isn't convincing, neither are his solutions. It seems to me that mass media and suburbanization are more likely culprits than the malevolent influence of the Bloomsbury Group. People find if more appealing to watch TV than go out to their local community group. So it's hard to see a huge resurgence from a few mild tax incentives.

Another problem is that these social organizations aren't necessarily as wonderful as they're painted: they can be vehicles for prejudice or corruption. For instance Phillip Blond's recent minor scandal where he turned out to be raiding the finances of his own social organization, the think tank ResPublica, to fund a lavish personal lifestyle. Blond talks repeatedly about virtue: a culture of virtue, a politics of virtue. But small, private organizations can encourage a culture of corruption rather than a culture of virtue.

A third problem is that the kind of small-scale co-op production that Phillip Blond likes isn't necessarily competitive against large-scale capitalist production. Blond airily waves aside economies of scale, but co-ops exist, have existed, and are being created; but don't seem to be able to out-compete large-scale capitalism. It seems to me if we want co-ops instead of corporations, we will have to radically change the tax system to give co-ops an advantage, and probably accept that the goods we buy will become more expensive.

Overall then, a pretty awful book. For a serious debunking, Jonathan Raban's LRB review is well worth a read.

I wrote a quick G+ post on the Greek situation. Main point: the Euro deal already includes a 50% default and a generous subsidy, if I were Greek I'd take it.

A disorderly default and Euro-exit would be a nightmare for Greece. Every day right now, the Greek governments spends more money than it takes in taxes. If they do a disorderly default, it means they instantly can't pay their public sector wages and pensions. They'll have to shut down large functions of the state. If the banks are allowed to open, there would be an instant bank run on every bank as everyone stampedes to convert their soon-to-be-worthless New Drachma savings to Euros. If the banks are shut, it's going to be a problem for many to just buy food for the week.

For the next year or two, it would be very difficult to live or do business in Greece. Would anyone have confidence in the New Drachma? Would any business be able to get credit for investment or to buy raw materials or to maintain a hotel in the off-season? Would there be hyperinflation?

I think there are some misleading ideas about easy solutions around. China isn't going to ride to the rescue: with a GDP of $5.9 trillion as opposed to the EU's $16 trillion it's too small, and doesn't have the self-interest incentive of the EU.

Greece isn't Argentina: Argentina didn't have the problem of a huge government spending deficit making it reliant on borrowing to run the state. Argentina didn't have an EU offering it a bailout. And even Argentina's default wasn't total: the defaulted-on bonds were paid back at about 30%. An Argentina-style unilateral default for Greece wouldn't cut their total debt by much more than the EU deal, and would hurt them a lot more because of their spending deficit.

So all the people yelling "Yay Greece, fight the evil Eurocrats!" remind me a bit of people yelling "Jump! Jump!" at a guy standing on a ledge. OK, you're entitled to your opinion, but it's not your body that's going to get splattered.

Economics. Problems of offshoring. How to do a sovereign default. Should we believe the German labour-market miracle? Market panic does not reflect the real economy. 2001 was peak of material consumption in UK: proof that economy can grow without increasing material consumption?

Society. Female bloggers abused, or are they? Laughter and control.

Sci/Tech. 24 Hours at Fukushima How to publish a 1930s fanzine. Ambitious Thames Hub transport plan (Big PDF). Ex-Google PM on Google Reader redesign. One-off waffle house game.

Politics. Attempt to make BT and its associates block the Pirate Bay. Britain runs out of Euro-allies . Criminalizing squatting. Could Obama be re-elected? A plausible petition.

Video. Owls can exhibit a remarkable head stability during angular movement of the body about any axis. An unexpected murmuration Glass steam engine, View from a London bus.

Random. Quiz: Prof or hobo? UK prison survival guide

Pics. Tsunami cleanup.

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Red Dawn | 18 comments (18 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Greece by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #1 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 05:57:08 AM EST
Isn't the decision dependent on the likelihood of Eurozone reforms?
There are structural impediments to Greece achieving a functional economy inside the Euro as currently constituted.
I'd argue Greece should hold on, because as the crisis works it's way up the chain (Italy, Spain, France) some Eurozone reforms will come on to the agenda... but it's a judgement about politics that I could well be wrong about.

Long term by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #7 Sun Nov 06, 2011 at 01:47:29 AM EST
I think Greece should be out of the Euro. It does them more harm than good.

Short term (1yr ish) I am leaning towards TE's argument. It gives a 50%, Very Official write down on their debt. Some degree of creditor compromise was always going to be needed - this seems like the best on offer.

Iambic Web Certified

[ Parent ]
More harm than good? by Tonatiuh (2.00 / 0) #17 Tue Nov 15, 2011 at 11:48:58 AM EST
The Euro is forcing to face economic realities, without it they could continue devaluating their currency forever in order for the poor to finance the profligacy of the non tax paying rich.

[ Parent ]
Economic realities by Scrymarch (2.00 / 0) #18 Wed Nov 16, 2011 at 08:50:23 AM EST
Have ways of making themselves known regardless. I don't know that it would have been on a very different timeline, either.

Iambic Web Certified

[ Parent ]
Blond lectured at Catholic University last month by lm (4.00 / 2) #2 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 09:54:02 AM EST
I almost went to see his talk. The description looked moderately interesting. Reading your overview of his book, I think I'm glad that I ended up skipping out. I don't think it would have been worth the hours that I would have missed at work to go see it.

But I now do have further insight into why he was invited to talk at CUA.

The last paragraph of the mission statement of the school of philosophy at CUA:

Despite its richness and diversity, modern philosophy is paradoxically marked by an anti-philosophical tendency. With notable exceptions, modern thought is characterized by skepticism concerning the very possibility of philosophy as search for truth about ultimate principles and human good and by inattention to the meaning of practical wisdom in nonphilosophical life. Cultivation of an intellectual awareness adequate to this situation is a principal goal of the School of Philosophy.

That is to say, part of its raison d'etre of the school of philosophy at Catholic University is to teach its students to oppose philosophical modernism in virtually all of its forms. From that point of view Thatcher and Marx very much are two peas in a pod. The difference between most forms of modern liberalism and Marx is simply that Marx applied liberalism to a strictly materialist philosophical worldview whereas most forms of modernism still hold something of a dualist view where some material rights flow from some rights that transcend matter but not all material necessities are rights.

I think there is more to this approach than most people are willing to concede, at least in The West. (Although, perhaps I ought to qualify that as "in the US." But to be fair, we are talking about Thatcher.) I think a good deal of that is a cultural bias that, even now, enshrines a visceral opposition to The Red Menace. At Tea Parties all over the US, the final word on Democratic initiatives is "That's communism. Looked how well that worked out for the Soviets." While most of The West is not as vigorously opposed The Red Menace as the Tea Party, "Marx" is still a four letter word in most contexts.

But if such a genetic approach becomes the entire approach, we lose a good deal of value. Sometimes the origins of ideas are less important than the way that they play out. If what Blond is driving at is that the genetic relationship between various forms of modernism result in similar consequences, then it seems to me that he's losing sight of some very important differences between Marxism and Thatcherism despite their genetic relationship. A genetic relationship, as it were, does not guarantee a family resemblance.

As a side note, I'd have to read Blond to be certain. But from your description, his idea of paradox seems to have a genetic relationship to the modern philosophical view of a dialectic. If so, that would put Blond in the same familial line as Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
It sounds by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #8 Sun Nov 06, 2011 at 10:41:05 AM EST
... From someone that hasn't read the book, mind, that there is just an appetite for such an anti-modern position, particularly the sturdy yeoman flavour, at least in the UK. Perhaps Blond is more politically useful than intellectually exciting. I mean, even by the usual standards of such things. Non-Thatcherite, traditionalist conservatism has an intellectual bloodline - eg Roger Scruton and the Salisbury Review. But it's also tied up in the torrid political hatreds of that era. Scruton himself has enough baggage that any fresh faced PR man hoping to clean up his party's image in preparation for office would hesitate to embrace him.

Yet you want to give yourself a bit of appearance of philosophical heft and have reporters stop talking about Milton Friedman and Fred Hayek in a banking crisis, or that you seem like a bit of a shallow PR guy vs Mr Frowny Serious who used to be a university something, even though you have a first in PPE from Oxbridge for goodness sake.

For this purpose Blond works fine. He attacks right and left so it's a bit Third Way without the tarnished brand. He also talks a lot of confusing guff while vaguely waving at home counties yeoman of yore. And as TE noted the argument looks plausible enough if hou don't know the references.

So pick what policies you like, especially a few that don't actually throw coal miners children to lions. Maybe ones Roger Scruton suggested before he started writing puff pieces for big tobacco. Sorted.

Iambic Web Certified

[ Parent ]
Obama's chances by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #3 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 10:05:17 AM EST
The biggest problem with these analyses is that always pick only a couple of metrics and always assume that the few data points of races in the last fifty years are statistically meaningful.

There are two things that should be making the Obama people very happy:

  1. Congress is seen as being run by the GOP and congress is at stunningly low approval ratings.  The Republicans in the House have been on a well publicized anti-Obama vendetta and while this war has put Obama in the 40% approval area, congress is at only 9% approval!
  2. One reason that Obama's approval is as low as it is is that the left is increasingly pissed off at him.  These are mostly people who will vote for him in the end.
Personally, I think Obama's biggest vulnerability right now is a serious primary challenge.  Looks like the Democrats are avoiding that, though.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
I think Obama's Achilles Heel is turnout by lm (4.00 / 1) #4 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 10:50:30 AM EST
In 2010, Obama's base was just not all that in to him and many simply didn't show up at the ballot box. His party took a drubbing, at least in part, because of that. Meanwhile, the Tea Party had the opposition all fired up and ready to go.

While more of Obama's base will show up in 2012 simply because it's a presidential election, I still think his base is largely not all that in to him and many will stay home. The big difference, however, seems to be that after seeing the GOP House at work, the Tea Party isn't all that into the GOP anymore. Moreover, it's looking quite likely that the GOP isn't going to be all that into their nomination.

So, at this juncture, I think that if more jobs keep getting created and the unemployment rate keeps going down, even if quite slowly, the Democrats will do well in 2012 even though their base isn't all that into them. The GOP's base seems to be even less into the GOP.

What would have really put the Democrats over the top is if they could have put the referenda about union negotiations in states like Ohio on the ballot in 2012 in the same way that the GOP got so many initiatives about gay marriage on the ballot in 2004. That would have fired up their base to turn out.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
True, but... by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #5 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 12:21:13 PM EST
anger at congress may trump that in driving Democrats to the ballot box. 

Also, I think the OWS demonstrations show that a lot of the anger about the economy is not currently aimed at the white house.

I think the Republicans are doing the exactly wrong thing.  If they were to actually be seen as working with the white house, and actively trying to make things better, I think they'd keep congress and have a lock on the white house in 2012.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
That is a fair point, but ... by lm (4.00 / 1) #6 Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 02:01:07 PM EST
... the totally awesome way that Democrats took the economy seriously and just got things done in 2009 and 2010 was part of the reason Democrats weren't motivated in the 2010 election cycle.

Maybe that's because the Democrats didn't appear to take the economy seriously and just get things done.  Rather they came off as letting the Republican minority walk all over them. That may be more perception than reality (although I suspect that it is not) but when it comes to motivating people to go out and vote, perception is far more important than reality.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
(Comment Deleted) by nebbish (4.00 / 2) #9 Mon Nov 07, 2011 at 04:24:38 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by nebbish

What corruption? by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #10 Mon Nov 07, 2011 at 09:45:26 AM EST
Council people giving their mates maintenance contracts and the like and the work not getting done.

[ Parent ]
(Comment Deleted) by nebbish (4.00 / 3) #11 Mon Nov 07, 2011 at 10:19:28 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by nebbish

[ Parent ]
Sounds like by Herring (4.00 / 2) #12 Mon Nov 07, 2011 at 10:38:41 AM EST
how central government runs except on a smaller scale. Instead of Housing Association Chairman and Dave's Builders, it's Minister for Stuff and Capita.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
So I guess by jump the ladder (4.00 / 2) #13 Mon Nov 07, 2011 at 10:39:37 AM EST
You're a bit sceptic on this "Big Society" stuff actually working then...

[ Parent ]
(Comment Deleted) by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #14 Tue Nov 08, 2011 at 03:37:47 PM EST

This comment has been deleted by nebbish

[ Parent ]
The possible consequences are scary by Herring (4.00 / 1) #15 Tue Nov 08, 2011 at 04:29:32 PM EST
As well as corruption, there's the spectre of hardline religious groups taking over social services and schools. And also everything being run by Linda Snell clones.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Hehe by Breaker (2.00 / 0) #16 Wed Nov 09, 2011 at 05:24:44 PM EST
the Euro deal already includes a 50% default
No it doesn't.  It includes a 50% haircut for nominals on bonds held by non public investors.  So only the private sector's going to take the haircut, not 50% across the board.

Every day right now, the Greek governments spends more money than it takes in taxes.
Substitute "Greek" for "UKia" and explain to me again why you think the UK should borrow more.

Greece has one mother of a decision to be made, and I'm damn glad I don't have to make it.  Surrender sovereignty to the EU and get some austere and harsh times, with a possibility of getting fucked over if Italy and Spain tumble too, or exit the € and get royally fucked until local tourism industries get sorted - they'll need to get their judiciary well sorted before any foreign investment comes in before that though.

Red Dawn | 18 comments (18 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback